Allen’s Melinda and Melinda Is a Conceptual Disaster

Before you ask me how Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda compares to his earlier films and whether it’s worth seeing, I should remind you that Mr. Allen is approaching 70 after a 40-year career, during which he’s directed 34 films and written and/or acted in 11 more that he didn’t direct.

Melinda and Melinda is only the sixth film he’s directed without playing one of its parts, generally that of the self-mockingly neurotic New York Jewish intellectual who more often than not gets the girl-usually a shiksa-before the final fade-out. Infrequently but very memorably, he loses the girl after a torrid affair, as in his best films, Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Hence, most of Mr. Allen’s storylines have consisted of bittersweet romantic fantasies (more plausible in real life than in the movies) in which he has wooed and won beautiful women with his razor-sharp wit.

In this context, one can say that his major periods are his Diane Keaton period (1972-1979) and his Mia Farrow period (1982-1992). Some admirers of the earlier and wilder Woody would add at least a footnote for Louise Lasser in Bananas (1971) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972).

If you’re wondering at this point why I’m telling you all this, it is because I have been avidly following Mr. Allen’s antics from the beginning (and even before the beginning, in a stand-up routine he did at the old Americana Hotel). And for much of the time since, I’ve been listening to his many critics kvetching about his sheer arrogance in presuming to cast himself as New York City’s auteur laureate.

There’s a dirty little secret about the movies that no one wants to acknowledge-that we moviegoers soon get sick and tired of seeing the same old people up there on the screen, even if they’re good or great. After a time, we begin mimicking their speech patterns and wish they would go away so new people can come along to sustain our childlike illusion: That everything on the screen is happening for the first time. The miracle in Mr. Allen’s case is that he has managed to sustain his career through decades of intensifying audience disenchantment.

Now to answer your question: Melinda and Melinda is somewhat more engaging than Anything Else (2003) and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), but it’s not nearly as funny as Hollywood Ending (2002). As always, the password to Mr. Allen’s cinema for me is ” Cherchez la femme.” In Melinda and Melinda, Mr. Allen is in top casting form with Radha Mitchell as the tragic and comic representations of the two Melindas, Chloë Sevigny as a betrayed wife in the tragic story, and Amanda Peet as a betraying wife in the comic one.

Having said that, I must add that Melinda and Melinda is a conceptual disaster on Mr. Allen’s part, from his pretentious introduction to the story’s premise all the way to his clumsily anti-climactic resolutions and his conceit of two parallel plots for the price of one. “Is life a comedy or a tragedy?” is the banal question raised at a downtown restaurant, where four of Woody’s overachieving New Yorkers are dining and debating in clunky platitudes. Sy (Wallace Shawn), a writer of musical comedies, starts off the discussion by suggesting the omnipresence of comedy in our lives, after which Max (Larry Pine), a writer of “serious” plays, takes up the rhetorical cudgels for tragedy. Al (Neil Pepe), a third man at the table, starts telling a story about something that really happened to serve as the starting point for the comic and tragic improvisations of Sy and Max. (The lone woman at the table, Stephanie Roth Haberle, is being saved for the frame tale’s final scene, with its reassuring moral that life is both comedy and tragedy.)

At this point, one might argue that Mr. Allen’s expertise is neither comedy nor tragedy, but rather parody. Yet it’s foolhardy to try to make a whole movie out of a parody, so we are forced to follow the two disconcertingly discordant tales, which have only one performer-Ms. Mitchell’s Melinda-common to both. The two wives in the two stories are a study in contrasts: Ms. Sevigny’s Laurel is a Park Avenue princess who shops and shops, and Ms. Peet’s Susan an aspiring director trying to make a film about male castration. Their respective husbands, however, are curiously both failed actors, though it is Susan’s husband, Hobie (Will Ferrell), who serves as Mr. Allen’s surrogate by delivering the few sardonic Woodyisms in the film; meanwhile, Laurel’s husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), is shunted aside in the role of the dull loser.

Mr. Allen reportedly instructed his first-time cinematographer, the much-honored Vilmos Zsigmond, that there was to be no discernible visual distinction between the two stories. Consequently, it took me several minutes into each scene change before I knew which I was watching. Charles Chaplin once noted sagely that comedy was filmed in long shot and tragedy in closeup. But Mr. Allen has hardly ever used closeups, even when he himself was playing the lead role. His camera style, particularly in recent years, has tended to be cool and detached, so the burden falls on Ms. Mitchell (particularly in her tragic mode) to maintain a consistently miserable expression so as not to be confused with her more cheerful alter ego. The result is a restriction on her hitherto impressive range of moods for other directors.

If there is one narrative device favored by Mr. Allen, it is betrayal-largely because his characters seldom have anything else to do, particularly his too often merely decorative women characters. There are no struggles for money, social position, fame, political goals, much less sheer survival. So betrayal becomes the only alternative to endlessly platitudinous table conversations. The luxurious Upper East Side apartments, the spacious Soho lofts, the chic restaurants uptown and downtown constitute the world Mr. Allen has lived in for most of his adult life. But I can’t say that Mr. Allen’s view of that world is inauthentic, as many others do.

Another complaint-that Mr. Allen’s New York lacks the racial diversity of the real city-seems to have affected him to the point that he overcompensates with not one but two eminently cultivated, articulate and musically gifted African-American aspiring boyfriends, Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for the tragic Melinda and Billy (Daniel Sunjata) for her comic counterpart. Ellis attends concerts featuring the music of Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók; Billy is more into Duke Ellington and Erroll Garner- mirror images of Mr. Allen’s two musical sides. The two Melindas go nowhere with these two relationships, but come unusually close to getting somewhere in terms of Mr. Allen’s hitherto racially cloistered world.

I suppose the next step is for the director to embrace the hip-hop scene, but I suspect that the cadences are all wrong for Mr. Allen’s instincts, both as a practicing musician and as a marketer of musical nostalgia from a time when melodic lines were not completely obliterated by an insistent beat.

I have long shared Mr. Allen’s taste in pop music and beautiful actresses, but I hope he continues making movies with stronger narratives and fresher and funnier jokes, unlike Melinda and Melinda.

Ring-A-Ding

Hideo Nakata’s The Ring Two, from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, is ostensibly the sequel to Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002), which was itself an English-language remake of Mr. Nakata’s Japanese horror classic, Ringu (1998). Mr. Nakata followed up his success with the Japanese public by making Ringu 2 in 1999. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Ringu or Ringu 2, and so I have no way of evaluating Mr. Nakata’s trend-setting contributions to the genre, which were labeled “J-horror” as a way of distinguishing them from Hollywood’s blood-and-gore-special-effects-make-you-scream horror movies.

When Mr. Verbinski passed on directing the sequel to The Ring, he recommended Mr. Nakata, who was reportedly intrigued by the departures from the previous Ring/ Ringu films in Mr. Kruger’s screenplay. He agreed to direct The Ring Two with two of the original cast members from The Ring, Naomi Watts as investigative reporter and single mom Rachel Keller and her disturbingly precocious son, Aidan, played by David Dorfman.

The basic horror gimmick of the Ring cycle, the cursed videotape and the telltale ring of the telephone to announce the death of anyone who watches it, is reprised here in condensed fashion, principally to justify the title. The idea of the mystically lethal videotape was employed in more gruesome fashion in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which had people inserting videotapes in other people’s stomachs so as to control them with the video messages. There is an interesting subtext lurking in both Videodrome and the Ring cycle, where modern technology turns on its supposed masters. Of course, as another reviewer astutely observed, videotapes are already being supplanted by DVD’s.

Not to worry: A single mom who’s scared to death of an evil force that’s threatening her son is chock-full of topical subtexts, with or without the supernatural female avenging force-the long-ago-victimized little girl who grew up into a long-haired fury named Samara. In ways I never fully understood, Samara manages to take over Aidan and makes him the instrument of her aggressions.

Industry scuttlebutt has it that the target audience of The Ring Two, like its predecessor, consists mainly of young females in search of chick-flick frissons of horror. This audience analysis makes sense from the very outset of The Ring Two, in which the fatal-videotape scene with minor unbilled players zeroes in on the guy, who is shown exposing his date to the videotape-knowing full well it may kill her-in order to remove the curse from himself. But she shields her eyes from the tape and is spared; he can’t help looking and dies with a frozen Munch-like Scream expression on his face. Rachel, who has fled with Aidan from Seattle after the events in the first film, interviews the traumatized girl and realizes that Samara has followed her and Aidan to the coastal Oregon town of Astoria. Rachel works as a reporter for the local paper owned by Max Rourke (Simon Baker), who takes an interest in her emotional problems but can’t make sense of what she tells him. When Aidan has to be hospitalized with a mysterious case of hypothermia and bruises are found on his body, Rachel is suspected of child abuse by the hospital authorities-especially by the overbearing staff psychiatrist, Dr. Emma Temple (Elizabeth Perkins). Rachel is forbidden unsupervised visits with Aidan and is thus driven to confront Samara once and for all. This leads her to Samara’s mother, Evelyn (Sissy Spacek), now institutionalized for having tried to drown her own baby daughter.

In the meantime, Samara, through Aidan, has “punished” Dr. Temple and Max for having doubted Rachel’s behavior as a mother. At this point, the movie began to spin out of control for me, because there were too many loose ends in the narrative that were never tied up amid the climatic thrills and chills of Rachel’s final showdown with Samara at the bottom of a well. Stylistically, the movie virtually drowns in torrents of water imagery. I can’t imagine where the Ring cycle can go from here, but I guess I don’t have to tell you that the horror genre is my least favorite. I have never felt the need to go to the movies to be scared. (From my earliest childhood, real life has done a good enough job on its own.) The scariest scene in the movie involves an assault on Rachel’s car by a herd of deer acting at Samara’s demonic behest. You can’t even trust Bambi anymore.

Hot-Air Anime

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, the latest anime film from the acclaimed director of Akira, is being released in New York in two versions: the original Japanese version with subtitles, which is playing at the Sunshine Cinema (143 East Houston Street between First and Second avenues), and an English-language version with the voices of Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart, which is playing at the Empire 25 (42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues). I have seen only the English-language version, and I have found it impressive and a little bit baffling. But it is certainly nothing if not original.

Anime is defined in the production notes as a “fusion of two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics, produced with full digital technology.” We are further told that, “ten years in the making, with a total budget of 2.4 billion yen (U.S. $22 million), Steamboy is one of the most expensive Japanese anime productions ever.” What is most peculiar about the film is that goes back in time for a futuristic reconstruction of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, a grandiose spectacle designed to demonstrate the industrial, military and economic superiority of Great Britain. What has powered all this pomp and circumstance? Steam, and nothing but steam. The spectacle often dissolves into a veritable orgy of animated steam, unleashed by a mysterious metal ball, which is in fact a “steam ball,” the nucleus of a mysterious and ominous “steam castle,” which in the wrong hands could presumably wrest supremacy in the world from the benign British Empire of Queen Victoria.

When a young inventor, Ray (voiced by Paquin), is given the ball by his scientist grandfather, Lloyd (Mr. Stewart), the boy is thrust into a world of evil intrigue in which his own deeply scarred father (voiced by Alfred Molina) is involved on the side of the bad guys in the O’Hara Foundation, which is technically owned by a young heiress named (gulp!) Scarlett (Kari Wahlgren). Much of the story consists of a high-tech chase all over the monumental edifices of 1851 London and its environs.

Mr. Otomo and his crew actually went to England to scout locations for their representation of the English land-, sea- and cityscape. And on this level, Steamboy is breathtakingly detailed and ambitious beyond anything I have ever seen in the realm of animation. But the chase goes on much too long, and Ray and Scarlett are never still long enough to develop any inner resonance or romantic rapport. The intergenerational Oedipal tensions between son, father and grandfather take center stage, but a certain repetitiousness ensues.

If Steamboy should prove to be a setback for anime, it would not affect my long-held reservations about animation ( Dumbo and The Simpsons notwithstanding). Indeed, the closer that animation comes to the lifelike qualities of live-action cinematography, the more superfluous I find it. As an ultra-Bazinian, I am still enamored of the cinema’s gestures of realism and temporality, which make it less of an unalloyed art form and more of a heart-stopping cog in the time machine. This doesn’t diminish the pleasure I’ve received from magical creatures like Goofy and Mr. Magoo. I simply don’t lie awake at night thinking of an animated Scarlett as I do of Vivien Leigh’s real-life, green-eyed enchantress from Gone With the Wind.