Owen Gleiberman
March 16, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

We gave it a B-

The new Woody Allen movie, Melinda and Melinda, is not a work of science fiction, yet there are moments when you may think you’ve slipped through a verbal-sociological time warp. Who are these men and women in their late 20s and early 30s nattering about Stravinsky and Bartók (”I find the more turbulent parts a little scary!”), about the Nuremberg trials, about the act they persist in referring to as ”making love”? Allen, who is often chided for creating a lily-white Upper East Side universe, now features a prominent African-American character, yet you wish he wasn’t a refined classical musician who has to say ”I’m from Harlem, USA!” At one point, a flip reference is made to the ”personal columns,” a phrase I don’t think I’ve heard in a decade. Doesn’t Allen know that the Internet has not only revolutionized the way that people advertise for someone to, uh…make love with but eliminated the stigma of it?

The hermetic, ”neurotic,” high-culture Manhattan of Melinda and Melinda no longer looks or sounds like the real world; it’s a synthetic patchwork of the world of old Woody Allen films. In alternating scenes, Allen creates two versions of the same story, one comic, the other tragic, and what’s odd is that the difference doesn’t mean anything: In each version, everyone speaks in the same coyly overemphatic Allen-ese. Yet if he now possesses an official tin ear for the rhythms and references of American urban life, Allen has by no means lost his craft, his ability to spin out a romantic scenario of adultery and heartbreak so you stay with it.

The best reason to see Melinda and Melinda is Radha Mitchell, who has her grabbiest role (or two of them) since she broke through with High Art (1998). In each version, she’s Melinda, a troubled young woman who splashes, uninvited, into a dinner party. The tragic section casts her as a former school chum of two of the women there, and in the comic version she’s a stranger — a luminous wreck who has just popped 28 sleeping pills. In each episode, she is rescued, or so it seems, by a love affair but mooned over by someone else; the effect is Hannah Lite, with a touch (in the downbeat version) of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Mitchell, the rare beauty who doesn’t act behind a screen of self-possession, lends urgency to the drama of someone coming apart, and she’s moving in her romance with a suave, subtly duplicitous musician (Chiwetel Ejiofor, the superb Nigerian actor from Dirty Pretty Things).

In the lighter episode, Melinda is chased by the earnest, dorky Hobie, a bad actor trapped in a passionless marriage. He’s played by Will Ferrell, who does a riff on Woody’s anachronistically nervous, cough-out-a-punchline shtick without embarrassing himself the way that Kenneth Branagh did. Yet Ferrell doesn’t put his stamp on the role, either. Except for Mitchell, no one in Melinda and Melinda does. The roster of offbeat actors (Chloë Sevigny, etc.) are dangling from strings, with a puppet master who needs to muss up his art and stop looking backward.

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