To say this slight experiment in story spinning is Woody Allen's best film in years isn't saying much when it's up against the dire likes of ANYTHING ELSE (2003), HOLLYWOOD ENDING (2002) and THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (2001). The premise is promising: Over a rainy-night dinner at trendy New York bistro Pastis, successful playwrights Max (Larry Pine) and Sy (Wallace Shawn) test their opposing notions of the human condition by playing a little game. Each will take the same story elements and, according to his disposition, turn them into a fleshed-out narrative. Max, the tragedian, begins by imagining a bedraggled Melinda (Radha Mitchell) bursting in on a dinner party hosted by her high-school best friend, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), in the chic downtown loft she shares with husband Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), an over-imbibing and underemployed actor. High-strung and fresh from a suicide attempt prompted by the loss of her children in a vicious custody suit, the pill-popping Melinda moves into the spare room and puts an unbearable strain on Laurel and Lee's already shaky marriage. As comic writer Sy tells it, everything starts when the perky Melinda (Mitchell again) bursts into the dinner party given by her Upper East Side upstairs neighbors, ruthlessly ambitious independent filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and her nebbishy husband, barely working actor Hobie (Will Ferrell). This Melinda promptly throws up an overdose of sleeping pills, but no harm done. She's back on her feet in no time, and ordering Chinese takeout solves the problem of the gourmet dinner that burned while everyone was aflutter over the unexpected intrusion. As the stories progress, both Melindas are fixed up with an attractive dentist but fall in love with musicians, while both married couples are sundered by furtive love triangles. But the stories also diverge, one dragging Melinda ever deeper into a black psychological mire, while the other sends her skipping into a whirlwind of silly misunderstandings and serendipitous discoveries. Mitchell is terrific as both Melindas, but the most of the characters speak in the peculiarly stilted cadences of Woody Allen-ese, and Ferrell is reduced actually to imitating Allen. And ultimately, this witty narrative sport sounds better than it plays. It's all very well to say that laughter and tears are just a heartbeat apart, but both variations on Melinda's story bear the unmistakable mark of Allen's morose sensibilities. In the end they both feel muddy and unfocused rather than delightfully ambiguous.
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