Mark Kermode - Tragic comedy

Woody Allen's latest offers lots to chew on, but leaves us empty, writes Mark Kermode

Melinda a

With his tireless schedule of one new film per year, Woody Allen has been on a creative treadmill that has churned out such forgettable production-line fare as Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending. To say that Melinda and Melinda is an improvement on his recent output is damning with faint praise, for what could be worse than The Curse of the Jade Scorpion? As return to forms go, it's on a par with such late period oddities as Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown - films packed with edgy Allen-esque charm that reminded you he was once one of the most reliably entertaining film-makers in the world, but which ultimately left you longing for the timeless beauty of "early funny ones" such as Love and Death and Annie Hall.

Starting (as ever) with a restaurant conversation between a group of Manhattan intellectuals, Melinda and Melinda reheats the hoary old dramatic chestnut that "tragedy confronts" while "comedy escapes". To test this thesis, our hosts conjure two juxtaposing scenarios, both of which begin with the eponymous woman's disruptive arrival at a dinner party, and then spin off into contemporaneous stories that explore alternate worlds of happy/sad outcomes.

In the tragic narrative (and it's occasionally difficult to tell which is which), Jonny Lee Miller's marriage to Chloe Sevigny implodes as Radha Mitchell's neurotic Melinda spreads discontent in her wake. Meanwhile, in the comedy, Will Ferrell's imminent abandonment by his voracious wife (wannabe director of an indie film entitled The Castration Sonata) sets him free to experience crazy love anew. En route we get plenty of laugh-out-loud gags about the horrors of dentistry (Ferrell serving as Allen's surrogate in the manner of John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway), some rambling discussion of the morality of life and art (none of it a patch on the genuine tragicomedy of Crimes and Misdemeanors) and a couple of technically admirable, if emotionally unengaging, performances - most notably from Mitchell, around whose doubly irritating character the narrative revolves.

While this may be diverting enough, Melinda and Melinda crucially lacks the sense of heartfelt empathy that has underwritten Allen's finest works. There's none of the personal pain of Husbands and Wives, the bitter-sweet joy of Broadway Danny Rose, or the sheer inventive magic of Stardust Memories or Zelig. The Purple Rose of Cairo may have playfully transgressed the cinematic fourth wall with its fantasies of movie idols climbing out of the silver screen, but it nevertheless remembered to romance its audience, who duly swooned even as they were dramatically alienated. In Melinda and Melinda, we remain observers rather than participants, laughing at (rather than with) the "life sucks" humour that keeps our ribs tickled and our heads engaged but leaves our hearts thoroughly unfluttered.

Allen has famously likened human existence to a joke about a bad restaurant where the food is lousy and the portions are so small. In Melinda and Melinda, he gives us plenty to chew on (humour, philosophy, drama), yet still somehow leaves us feeling empty at the end. Perhaps I just expect too much, seeing every new Allen offering as another possible shot at the miracle of Manhattan. But I can't help feeling that however deft Melinda and Melinda may be, a little less output and a little more stock-taking would give Woody the breathing space to do so much more.

The phrase "white-knuckle thriller" has been invoked in relation to Maria Full of Grace, although my own physical reactions to this grittily realistic tale of a Colombian drug mule were more of the sweaty palm and churning stomach variety. Writer/director Joshua Marston describes his award-winning first feature as an attempt to show that "these are real people making this choice for social, economic and human reasons". Thus we meet 17-year-old Maria (the Oscar-nominated newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno) on the streets of Colombia, where her overcrowded family life, pittance-poor work conditions and recently discovered pregnancy drive her to desperate measures.

Enlisted to swallow vast quantities of bagged-up drugs and fly to America like some human time-bomb, Maria embarks on a journey that is harrowing, sickening and yet ultimately (if perhaps too cosily) redemptive. The sequences in which Maria is taught to fill her stomach with lethal chemicals are convincingly upsetting, conjuring loathsome visions of oral rape despite an admirable visual discretion. Elsewhere, the film loses its way somewhat, Marston swapping verite for melodrama with oddly con-fused results. Still, it's undeniably powerful stuff, and an outstanding calling card for both the director and star, of whom we may pray for great things in the future.