Melinda and Melinda (2004)

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Melinda and Melinda takes one story and tells it twice, once as a comedy and once as a drama.  These stories are spliced together, so we jump back and forth between them, and the genre differences result in slight plot variations.  But in both stories there’s a scene in which a character tries to jump out of a window, to their death.

I was trying to think of why that moment exists in both stories.  In the drama, it’s clearly a result of Melinda’s inner turmoil, finally brought to the surface after a number of personal failures and frustration.  We can see the gears turning in her head as the decides to do this.  It’s clearly something she’s considered, even tried before, and to her there’s no other option.

In the comedy, though, the woman who tries to leap from the window is a character we’ve only just met.  Her attempted flight is meant to heighten another character’s sexual failure.  In that story, Will Ferrell plays a man who has brought home this beautiful woman he was set up with.  She is clearly angling to go to bed with him, but he’s too hung up on another woman named Melinda (different Melinda, different story), and when he wallows briefly in his misery, it reminds the woman of her own misery.  Ferrell desperately tries to bring her back into the moment, but the situation has spiraled so far out of his control already.

So why is that supposed to be funny instead of dramatic?  Part of the reason is because we don’t know this woman.  Her alleged pain is brought upon by the protagonist’s mistakes, and we know more about him.  We only get a brief glimpse into her reasoning, which she has to explain to us, whereas when Melinda attempts to jump from the window, it’s a payoff of what we’ve observed throughout the film.  It’s like riding a roller coaster that starts at the bottom and works it’s way up to the top, building to the crest vs. being airlifted to the top.

So let me back up.  Melinda and Melinda begins with a conversation around a restaurant table, and there are two characters who hold opposing beliefs on the nature of life.

“The essence of life isn’t comic, it’s tragic,” one argues, opening the film.  The other person thinks life is more comic, and they briefly debate this.  Well, the whole film is a debate on this topic, actually.

One of the proposes a story of a woman showing up out of the blue at an old friend’s house.  This is the tragic version.  The woman is Melinda, and her life is a mess.  She intrudes on a dinner party, and the other guests who know her do not want her there.

Then they show the comic version of this same story.  In this version, the woman is a stranger to all of them, and she’s a neighbor.  She only stumbles into the dinner party because she took too many sleeping pills.  So even in the comic version, we get started with a suicide attempt.

The film bounces back and forth between these two stories.  There are a lot of similarities (mainly infidelity), but the story focuses on different characters.  In the tragic story, Melinda is the main character.  In the comic story, Will Ferrell’s Hobie is the protagonist, as he falls in love with the woman who suddenly enters their lives.

The stories themselves are fine, but there’s nothing crazy going on.  They all feel like conventional stories, and the whole thing feels comic because of the framework established at the beginning of the film.  The tragic story doesn’t feel so tragic, because we know the writer telling the story is trying to be tragic.  He’s trying to prove his point, so the tragedy feels a little forced.

The film shows how much goes into making a genre piece.  The sets, the casting, wardrobes, the score etc. all affect the way we see a film.  I’m reading a biography on Woody Allen (slowly but surely), and in it someone is quoted as saying that Woody writes a story and then figures out the best medium for that story to be told, whether it be a film, play, short story, etc.

That seems to be what he’s doing here.  He had a story idea about a woman entering someone’s life out of the blue, and maybe he thought it could go in multiple directions.  So like Charlie Kaufman with Adaptation (2002), Allen decided to focus on the process rather than the story itself.

That’s how it felt to me, at least.  I never really identified with any one character in either story because both stories resembled case studies or a writer’s workshop.  I became more aware of the techniques being used to manufacture a certain feeling.

In the comedy, Hobie, the husband, is the one cooking.  That’s fine on its own, but the writer even says in a brief voice over that he would switch up these roles, playing with gender expectations, so it’s a clear, calculated choice.  It’s funnier if Will Ferrell is the one cooking and burning the food, then fretting over it.  That’s the idea.

The comedy is more familiar to other Allen films, with the fast-talking and second guessing.  The tragic story seems to over indulge in supposed “tragedy,” but so did some of Allen’s early dramas, Interiors and September.  Both of this films were squeezed dry of any comedy, like they had a Nietzschen philosopher/Spock do a quick pass on the script, just making sure all fun was taken out.

In the dramatic story, it feels like the characters will never laugh again.  In the comedy, though, there are absurd moments too, ones in which things work out a little too well.

Hobie wants to sleep with the new woman in his life, but he doesn’t want to cheat on his wife.  Well, next thing he knows, he finds his wife in bed with another man, so he feels it’s okay to go forward with his anticipated affair.  Of course, the woman he desires has met someone knew.

The real points of both stories is in how they end.  The tragedy ends sadly, the comedy ends with the couple getting together.  In some ways the emphasis is placed on the end result, not the journey.

The film ends with the following line: “The most important thing to do is to enjoy life while you can… it could end like that” (snaps fingers and we quickly cut to black).  This might be where the Sopranos got the idea to end their series with a cut to black.

So it’s about two writers with two different philosophies on how life ends.  Then they come to the conclusion, though, that it’s not about the ending, it’s about what you do along the way.

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