After 34 movies, Woody Allen has become like a ratty old armchair that couples fight about. Do we throw the thing out or keep it? One can't bear to part with it, as it used to be functional and fashionable. The other thinks it's an embarrassing blight on their taste.
Having sat through ''Melinda and Melinda," Allen's newest film, I'm not sure what to do with him. His two most recent movies, ''Hollywood Ending" and ''Anything Else," were career lows whose unrepentant blandness and contempt for his female characters seemed like good reasons to walk the chair out to the trash. For what it's worth, ''Melinda" isn't quite as awful, but it doesn't entirely work either.
The movie is two stories -- one a tragedy, the other a comedy -- about one woman named, of course, Melinda (Radha Mitchell). Things begin when two downtown dinner companions, playwrights played by Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine, argue whether comedy or tragedy is more relevant to the human condition. The movie enacts both writers' proposals.
In the tragic half, Melinda reappears in New York after years away, crashing the small dinner party of an old friend, a spoiled Park Avenue princess named Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her vaguely successful actor husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). Melinda is thin, beautiful, depressive, and apparently suicidal, hijacking the evening with the sad story of her life, which is capped with a recent discharge from a mental facility. She was an art historian who married a doctor and moved to the Midwest only to become miserable as a wife and mother, just like, we're reminded, Emma Bovary.
In the comic half, Melinda, having taken a near-fatal dose of pills, interrupts a larger party presided over by her new neighbors, Susan (Amanda Peet) an up-and-coming filmmaker whose latest film is called ''The Castration Sonata," and Susan's husband, Hobie (Will Ferrell), is a struggling actor.
Melinda's two halves are first told separately and awkwardly, then rather seamlessly. At first, the fluidity seems to be Allen's conscious comment that there is sadness in comedy and comedy in sadness. But this runs counter to the dueling philosophies that Shawn and Pine argue so casually, not to mention pretentiously, throughout. That it becomes hard to tell which half is which just means there has been a glaring mix-up. The comedy is sadly unfunny, and the tragedy, as such, is often humorously sad.
Through her romantic entanglements, we see Melinda complicate her friends' and neighbors' lives. In the tragedy, she meets Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a composer and musician from Harlem on whom Laurel has a crush. In the comedy, Hobie falls for Melinda and turns silly with envy when Susan sets her up with a rich dentist (Josh Brolin). These are the makings of a good movie, but Allen doesn't dramatize any of it enough or seem to have a point. Since he has previously married tragedy and comedy to masterful effect in ''Crimes and Misdemeanors," there's no reason to put up with the misalliance of the two in ''Melinda."
The film's deftest touches aren't really his. Production designer Santo Loquasto turns the city's interiors into a real-estate showcase of gorgeous apartments and tony restaurants. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gives most scenes an intoxicating shimmer as if the light were coming off a glass of white wine. Allen wants us to know that the young bourgeoisie is thriving, but he invests them with so little personality or dynamism that it's hard to care. The movie often plays like bad Whit Stillman, whose WASP-y films often seem to be adept impersonations of vintage Allen.
''Melinda" returns Allen to that period in the mid-1980s when his pictures were passably serious explorations of irritating people. He could have gotten away with this one if the people in it were wise or if the actors playing them soulful. But they're not.
Mitchell's performance is the key to the movie, and it's most disappointing. She's best known as Johnny Depp's mean-spirited wife in ''Finding Neverland," and Allen's instructions to her here seem simple: In the comedy scenes, be happy; for the tragic tale, be serious. In one half, Mitchell is fidgety and bemused and ditzy. In the other half, she stares ahead and squints as if in a trance. Mitchell follows direction so well that she allows Allen to rob her of a vitality that we sense once or twice. The narrative exercise ruins the character. For the most part, Melinda is a nattering, self-obsessed drag.
But so is everyone else in this movie. Allen lately has grown tired of complex characters and inventive actors to play them. He appears to be making movies because that's what he's always done, but the love and the ideas and the zip are essentially gone.
The yearly Woody Allen picture now feels like a rite to be nervously anticipated, like a medical checkup or tax time. Now, everyone in his pictures seems like a marionette under his half-hearted control, beholden to situations that yield no surprises. You could argue that his characters have always been unmitigated extensions of him, but now it's easier to notice the strings.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.