It’s been more than a decade since “Bullets Over Broadway,” the last Woody Allen movie that resembled a hit. The most recent Allen vehicles (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else”) came and went with little notice and few defenders.
His latest, “Melinda and Melinda,” in which he does not appear, is not likely to change the situation. Scattered, talky and only sporadically amusing, it plays like a film-school exercise, although in some ways it suggests the movie he’s been working toward all his life.
In the past, Allen has recast and reshot his films, and he’s always been torn between comedy (the source of his early successes) and drama (which he once compared to sitting at the grownups’ table). “Melinda and Melinda” essentially gives him the chance to tell the same story as a tragedy, then as a comedy, with two separate casts emphasizing the differing approaches.
The sole exception is the Melinda of the title, played in both versions by Radha Mitchell: first as a drama queen and then as a romantic-comedy character. In both stories, she’s a suicidal young woman who crashes a Manhattan party and disrupts the lives of the married couples who are hosting.
Melinda is an old acquaintance in the tragedy version, which stars Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller as a couple whose marriage is threatened by his drinking and casual cheating. In the comedy version, Melinda is a stranger living next door to Will Ferrell, who falls for her partly because he feels no passion for his distracted wife (Amanda Peet).
The setup for the two approaches is a dinner conversation between a comedy playwright (Wallace Shawn) and a dramatist (Larry Pine), who admits that his serious plays make less money. Their debate doesn’t go much deeper than that, but it does allow them to set the scene, interrupt it with commentary and weave the two approaches together.
For the first half hour or so, “Melinda and Melinda” promises an Allen breakthrough, but it turns out to be the kind of personal film that just misses. The thinly drawn, selfish characters lack conviction, and too often they stray into self-parody. Perhaps that’s why Pine's relatively deadpan dramatic approach turns out to be funnier than Shawn's comic variation, which strains too hard for laughs.
The presence of Ferrell might suggest that Allen has found the box-office star he needs to win back his audience, but fans of “Elf” and “Anchorman” are unlikely to warm to Ferrell playing the role that Allen would have played 30 years ago. His mannerisms come so close to outright impersonation that it’s a little creepy.
The other actors have their moments, especially Miller, Sevigny and Brooke Smith (as her wisecracking pal). But Mitchell has the most screen time, and whether she’s playing the prodigal ex-chum or the stressed-out neighbor, this gifted Australian actress makes the most of what she’s given.