Woody Allen's a far more flexible filmmaker than people give him credit for, his back catalogue ranging from flimsy funnies (Bananas, Manhattan Murder Mystery) to doom `n' gloom psychodramas (Interiors, September). It's the movies in-between, however, that stand as his legacy: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah And Her Sisters. Woody's always been at his best when mixing salt with sweet, fun with glum.
Melinda And Melinda spells out a truth that Allen's movies have always recognised, albeit a little more covertly: comedy and tragedy are one and the same, one man's melancholy being another's mirth. And so we get two takes on a single scenario, as a married couple (Chloë Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller first, Amanda Peet and Will Ferrell second) play Cupid to lonely thirtysomething Melinda (a doubly terrific Radha Mitchell). In one version, our frayed heroine is a pill-popping, booze-swilling breakdown-to-be, attracted to Chiwetel Ejiofor's dangerously smooth piano player like a ragged moth to a blowtorch. In the other she's rather less frazzled, a loveable waif who inadvertently catches Ferrell's roving eye.
Yet it's this second, lighter rendition that marks Melinda as Allen's Return To Form, the 69-year-old director dishing out gags with pace, purpose and precision. Of course, it helps when you have Ferrell as your romantic foil, the Anchorman funnyman excelling where others have flailed by nailing Woody's on-screen alter-ego. His trick? Tuning into the rhythms of Allen's New York Jewish patter while stopping short of impersonation. Two clowns for the price of one.
The tragic tale, meanwhile, is less effective. Why exactly is something of a puzzle, the drama being well-acted, neatly plotted and surprisingly digestible given Allen's adoration of Bergman and Chekhov. But then it dawns: tragedy minus heft really isn't tragedy at all. So while the comic strand tickles the funny bone with the usual array of Woody one-liners, its sombre storyline never pricks the tear ducts.
Still, good to see Allen revitalised after a string of limp efforts. It's been a while since he showed this much passion - for filmmaking or life itself.