Melinda and Melinda and Look at Me

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, April 25, 2005

 

Although the New York critics once hailed him as a genius, Woody Allen was never a Stanley Kubrick-style prophet of the cinema occasionally coming down from the mountaintop with a wholly original new film. Instead, we can see now that he's a talented, hardworking craftsman who churned out a prodigious number of pretty good movies before finally colliding with the law of diminishing returns in this decade.

Allen is an upscale, limited edition version of his mass-market idol, the late Bob Hope, from whom he borrowed his film persona as the cowardly but self-absorbed schlemiel who somehow always gets the girl. Indeed, watching one of Hope's ancient "Road" comedies these days generates the odd feeling that Bob Hope is impersonating Woody Allen. Similarly, the post-modern touches in Allen's films trace back to Hope's wildly self-referential late 40s comedies.

Like Hope, Allen is an alpha male off-screen (he was captain of his high school basketball team). Blessed with Hope's indefatigability and efficiency, Allen makes a movie every year for what the Wachowski Siblings probably spent on the "Matrix" sequels' catering. Allen can land big stars on hiatus between their high-paying projects because they know he always finishes on schedule.

The most popular type of humor might be the startling shift of the frame of reference, as in Allen's joke, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying." After 35 movies, however, the 69-year-old Allen is hard-pressed to surprise us any longer, so his increasingly indistinguishable scripts have become ever more dependent on the less certain charms of self-parody.

In Allen's new comedy-drama, "Melinda and Melinda," the few laughs stem from the wonderfully silly casting of that enormous slab of Gentile cluelessness, Will Ferrell (from "Elf" and all those George W. Bush parodies on "Saturday Night Live") in the stock role of The Woody Allen Character.

Unfortunately, Ferrell appears only in the comic half of the movie (and Woody not at all), because Allen insists on retelling the same story -- a suicidal beauty with Madame Bovary's backstory intrudes upon a glittering dinner party -- as a dull drama.

If you are in the mood for a good Woody Allen comedy, however, Agnès Jaoui's "Look at Me," which won a deserved Best Screenplay award at Cannes, delivers the Allenesque pleasures of brittle wit among the cultural elite, while also remaining more in touch with economic reality than the typical communiqué from Planet Woody, where all struggling artistes have dazzling 5,000 square foot Manhattan apartments and plenty of time on their hands to discuss their impending adulteries.

During the Depression, audiences flocked to "white telephone" films about millionaires so financially secure their interior decorators chose their phones. Perhaps Allen's core audience is people waiting tables while they hawk their screenplays, for whom Woody's movies offer fantasies of effortless entitlement.

The subtitled "Look at Me" explores the financial and moral stresses of trying to make a living in the ruthlessly competitive arts. The plump and not terribly talented, but amusingly acerbic, 20-year-old daughter of France's most influential man of letters suspects that every man who asks her out just wants to meet her father. Yet, considering how broke are all the young writers she knows, it's hard to blame them.

Worse, her father is a prize stinker who ignores her. To show off his literary taste, he saddled his daughter with an, as they say, inappropriate name: "Lolita." But Lolita today is not the light of his life. He has an exquisite new wife hardly older and much thinner than her, and a new daughter, too. When it comes to children, his attitude seems to be, "The older they get, the cuter they ain't."

Too overweight to be an actress, Lolita focuses her wavering artistic ambitions on her chorus' upcoming classical concert. I feared that "Look at Me" would turn into just another "Rocky" remake, with Lolita finally hitting that tricky high C note and earning a standing ovation and a contract at La Scala, but the film has a more European message: performing great music is its own reward.

And Lolita's love story is far more appealing than either of the Melindas' because human beings can't help being more intrigued by the young woman's eternal question -- Who will be the father of my children -- than by the adulteress' whim -- With whom will I amuse myself next?

Both films are rated PG-13.

***

Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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