Melinda and Melinda

One of my favorite quotes on the subject of comedy comes from Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when YOU fall into an open sewer and die.” An event can be either comic or tragic, depending on how deeply we care for the people involved.

Perhaps more to the point, as Steve Martin used to say, “Comedy isn’t pretty.” Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” examines the fine, messy line between comedy and tragedy by telling essentially the same story from two viewpoints: one from a writer of comedies telling how he would adapt it for the stage; the other from a tragedian, playing up its sadder elements.

The different versions appear in tandem, a few scenes of one followed by a few scenes of the other, back and forth. To help us keep straight which is the tragedy and which is the comedy, Allen has cast different actors in each version, except for the central figure, Melinda, who is played by Radha Mitchell in both.

In each case, a dinner party among Manhattanite friends is interrupted by the arrival of a disheveled Melinda. In the tragedy, she is the childhood friend of two of the women present, a former addict and alcoholic who lost custody of her two children after being dumped by her husband. In the comedy, she is unknown to everyone, simply being the downstairs neighbor of the host and hostess, and her sudden appearance at their door is due to her having ingested 28 sleeping pills and evidently not wanting to die alone.

Right away Allen is subverting our expectations; you’ll notice it is the comedy, not the tragedy, that begins with a suicide attempt. It is funny, too, the host concerned about Melinda vomiting on the carpet and worrying over his Chilean sea bass that’s still in the oven.

The tragedy has Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) as the hosts of the dinner party, and it is in their apartment that Melinda decides to stay until she gets back on her feet. Lee, an alcoholic actor who is cheating on his wife, resents the intrusion of Laurel’s deadbeat friend into their lives. Laurel, meanwhile, with her friend Cassie (Brooke Smith), tries to help Melinda find a man, a job and a new life.

In the comedy, Melinda had no children before losing her husband, and her upstairs neighbors are Hobie (Will Ferrell) and Susan (Amanda Peet). Hobie, a congenial, slightly bumbling out-of-work actor, gets a crush on Melinda but feels guilty even THINKING about it, let alone acting on it; he loves his wife too much. Nonetheless, he is grumpy when Susan sets Melinda up on a date with a wealthy, perfect man named Greg (Josh Brolin).

The stories wind up in very different places. Many of the events are the same, but the comedian and tragedian alter details to suit their purposes. In one extreme case, the tragic events that befall Melinda in that version remain in the comedy — but they are foisted upon a minor character instead.

That is where Allen shoots himself in the foot, I think. Here he has suggested a fascinating idea — spinning the same story to be either funny or sad — and then he has not followed through. He has taken the same starting point (Melinda crashes a dinner party) and a few of the same basic scenarios and from there created to entirely DIFFERENT stories.

But what if Melinda’s tragic finale had been kept intact for the comedy, and the telling of it changed so that it could be funny? The line “I’ll never find love and I’m going to die alone!” (to create an example) can go either way, depending on the context, on our attitude toward the person saying it, and (especially) on the delivery. Maybe it’s just me, as a person who ponders comedy deeply when he should be doing other things, but that sounds like a fantastic exercise.

Of course, maybe such a film would be just that: an exercise, an academic treatise on comedy that would be more instructive than entertaining. Maybe Allen had the right idea, to use the same jumping-off point to tell two similar but very divergent stories.

He chose some good actors, anyway, Jonny Lee Miller nicely creating the handsome, cold-hearted actor and Sevigny playing well his conflicted wife. Will Ferrell earns nearly all of the film’s laughs in what is essentially the Woody Allen role: the neurotic, fussy New Yorker who says wry things more to himself than to anyone else. I have no doubt that if Allen were 40 years younger (OK, maybe just 20, considering his ego), he’d have cast himself in this part.

Woody Allen has been irrelevant for so long that a whole generation of viewers has sprung up who don’t remember when he mattered. I am one of them. He has made good films within my lifetime, of course, in the 1970s and early ’80s, but kids don’t watch Woody Allen movies. In my movie-going lifetime — say, from age 16 — his work has been sporadic, unmoving, even embarrassing. (That’s to say nothing of his personal life, to which the same three adjectives have often applied.)

“Melinda and Melinda” doesn’t even come close to approaching Allen’s former glory, but viewed outside the unconquerable shadows of “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and Her Sisters,” it’s solidly watchable. Its comedic parts are only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny — Allen has always been more drolly urbane than “funny,” in my opinion — yet it feels amusing anyway. The impression one gets as the final credits roll is one of having seen an enjoyable, witty flick, even if one’s audible reactions were confined to a few chuckles.

B- (1 hr., 40 min.; PG-13, a little very mild profanity, brief very mild sexuality; should have been PG.)