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Sex in America

. "Melinda and Melinda"

I don't know why I keep subjecting myself to Woody Allen pictures. Every time I see one (and I think I've seen them all), I swear off. Too much comedy based on neuroses, the human condition, misplaced values, hermetically sealed emotions, angst derived posturing and so on. Also too much yuppie New Yorkdom. Heretofore, I might have said, "too much Woody Allen" but, to his great credit, he doesn't take a direct role here. Aging actors have difficulty accepting that they're no longer credible as romantic leads. Allen and Eastwood have finally caved in to reality and their movies are better for it.

Not that Allen isn't present. He's merely turned over his part to comedically proficient alter egos -- Will Ferrell in this case. As a result, on the chart of success for an Allen outing, this is a blip in the right direction.

Allen is an intellectual at heart, and a psychotherapist disguised behind a veil of comedy. Or, he's a comedian using sociologically oriented analytic skills for his basic material. Either way, this double story is framed as the product of an oh-so-intellectual table discussion between two writers, each of whom takes the same story and characters, giving their version a comedic tilt on the one hand, a tragic one on the other. The outcome is pure Allen.

In both scenarios, Melinda arrives unexpectedly at friends' apartments during a dinner party, setting all kinds of emotional shockwaves into motion. They include a sordid past in which escape from a murder charge and a serious suicide attempt (in the tragic version) and lying, cheating and production financing (in the comedy version). Obviously, Allen writes what he knows about, and he spends much coin from his old, dependable treasure chest of neurotic and erotic behavior.

His choice of Radha Mitchell for this central, dual role is tops. When I saw her in "Neverland" my feeling about her negative character was that a very sympathetic role was lurking within that beautiful, hurt and hardened breast. Her Melindas satisfy the expectation in every way. It's the sort of part that any actor could die for, calling on broad emotive range within a brilliant showcase for it.

One of her characters is a mess of contradiction and guilt, struggling to gain a foothold on the difficulties of living, moving from utter fear of her own unworthiness to a determined woman of complete confidence. On the other plane, as Melinda #2, she's a person with a fragile, humble sweetness you'd be happy to be around. The image of womanhood that Allen is playing on here is the destructive-constructive nexus. It's worth the price of admission to witness this fetching performance and makes me wonder if the motion picture academy's memory can retain this accomplished achievement for 8 months until the voting begins.

All other female performances are strong ensemble contributions. Amanda Peet and Chloe Sevigny, are among the sexiest around and here come up beautifully in comedic requirements. Both add add colorful spunkiness to issues of betrayal, girlfriend manipulation and fractured fidelity.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, on the other hand, who was utterly brilliant in "Dirty Pretty Things," serves adequately in a role that barely touches on his deeper potentials and is essentially a miscast in these circumstances. Will Ferrell, as the Allen presence, produces the requisite Allen schtick, nerdy baseline and comedic timing that is the auteur's trademark... but not without the attempt showing signs of stylistic strain.

Teaming again with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Allen provides the ambience of the big city with all its brownstone entryways and efficient, well-designed interiors to impart the stage setting for thriving and striving urbanites in their wholly accepted habitat of social sophistication. His city is a continuing character and visual foundation.

The Allen formulation may be long in the tooth by now, and repetition might be a glowering presence in the corner of every frame, but in all fairness it may be said that there's a degree of resurrection in what he has managed to pull off here. As pretentiously analytic as it might be, if his next film is as much better as this is over his last few, there's hope for his grand opus of serio-comedic angst-saturated satire.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Radha Mitchell as Melinda
The tragic side

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