The Basics: What happens when a writer of tragedies and a writer of comedies get together over a meal? For Woody Allen, it means he's sitting home alone eating a TV dinner and working on his endless stream of films. His latest starts with the dinner-conversation dilemma of such a gathering: Given the basic premise of a story, can you tell that story as either a comedy or a tragedy? Allen takes the proof to the screen, interweaving two tales of a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who wanders in on a dinner party given by an out-of-work actor and his high-strung wife, played in the comedy by Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet, and in the tragedy by Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Sevigny.
The Catch: Which Melinda is more interesting? Which scenario reveals more about the human condition? Which story is more appealing? These are questions for a final exam in dramaturgy, right after you're asked to define irony. But this is no time for a test. While it is jarring in the beginning to move back and forth between the episodes, Professor Allen and his pop quiz melt away after the first few minutes as the story takes over. Each half spins out in its own direction, but generally follows the prospects of what would happen if the well-intentioned guests at the party tried to help the poor soul who landed at their feet.
Why It's Good: While Will Ferrell is the most well-known actor in the cast, Mitchell is the least recognizable of both ensembles '- or, rather, the one who is least typecast '- so she's freer to move about with her characterization. And move about she does. It's not just about hair, makeup and accents either. As bouncy and quirky as she is in the comedy sequences, she seems equally weighed down by an anchor in the dramatic scenes, as if she's moving more slowly and thinking less clearly.
She weaves two distinct characters from the same cloth and yet keeps them similar enough to maintain the thread between the two halves of the film. She not only stands up to her complicated task, but also single-handedly makes the premise work. Allen could have stripped away much of the sizzle from the extraneous story lines and endless stream of costars and had the same effect.
So which half is better, the comedy or the tragedy? The question comes back at the end, but the answer is left for dessert conversation.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you ponder the big picture
Stars: Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny
Director/screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Charles Joffe, Jack Rollins, Stephen Tenenbaum
Release date: March 18, 2005, in New York and Los Angeles; later nationwide
Distributor: Fox Searchlight