Life alternates between the Mask of Comedy and the Mask of Tragedy, and Woody Allen, only now finding out, decides to make it the subject of his latest film, Melinda and Melinda. It's a better idea than naming a movie Anything Else, anyway, and to illustrate the point, Allen pinpoints the discussion at a New York City bistro one rainy night, where intellectuals, being rich, white and bathed in Vilmos Zsigmond's amber glow, have nothing better to do than discuss whether the essence of life is comic or tragic. Kibitzing playwrights Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine (Vanya on 42nd Street alum -- not the last time Woody will be referencing Chekhov here) argue the point, with a friend's anecdote pulled this way and that for either tears or laughter. Allen is there also, behind the camera only this time around, to flesh out the paralleling narratives with his usual serene indifference to mise-en-scène (passing nods to long takes, medium distances and a traveling shot once in a while, invariably ruined by a zoom). For once in an Allen film, the eyes hurt less than the ears -- the transparently memorized dialogue has by now hardened into kabuki. One character tells another he was able to see through her soul when they first met. "What did you see?" "Something very clouded."
Anyhoo, Serious Plot has asshole struggling actor Jonny Lee Miller and "Park Avenue princess" wife Chloë Sevigny having some friends over for dinner, while Funny Plot kicks off with a swank get-together hosted by struggling filmmaker Amanda Peet and schlubby hubby Will Ferrell. Parachuted into both strands is Melinda (Radha Mitchell), in the former an old college buddy with more issues than a newsstand, a total stranger cutely stuffed with sleeping pills in the latter. Again, in apartments this posh (the most pornographically luxurious since the stadium-sized ateliers of Closer -- whoever said struggling artists have it tough?) there is not much to do other than orchestrate liaisons, so Melinda is off to her regenerative affairs, with musician Chiwetel Ejiofor in the tragedy, and with token smoothie Daniel Sunjata in the farce. (That both guys happen to be black signals Allen's only advance in the whole film, making it almost as racially current as Driving Miss Daisy.) Since Serious Plot is modeled after the laboriously grave Woody of Interiors and September, Melinda ends up writhing on the floor, while Funny Plot etches out some faux-Mozartian harmony for her and Ferrell's smitten castrato.
Allen may have intended Melinda and Melinda as self-reflexivity about the director who can address the same motifs and obsessions in Sleeper and Another Woman, yet the film is further proof of his shrinking worldview. The extraordinary blend of gaiety and darkness that propels a Rules of the Game here is a parlor trick, schematic rhymes -- a glance in the mirror, "I want to know, yet I don't want to know," aborted leaps out the window -- tied up comfily (and lazily) with the insight that it is all in the eye of the beholder. Sheesh. The latest in the unending brigade of lissome young actresses Allen handpicks to people his East Village vistas, Mitchell manages to impose some autonomy with her fractured intensity, despite her characters (especially in dark mode) having neurosis after neurosis trawled on with wet towels. Ferrell has what is widely acknowledged as the Woody Allen role, which is redundant since every character in a Woody Allen picture talks like him; one nifty moment aside, his face bubbling up as he realizes a wish coming true, he did much better work in Old School. Did it ever occur to Allen to maybe have some characters stepping from one story to the other? "Living is messy," Ejiofor says, but here it can be tidily squeezed into bottles scored to either Bach or Duke Ellington.
The most unlikely detour into Victorian England since the Hughes brothers found 'hood anxiety in 19th-century Britannia with From Hell, the lavish animé Steamboy has been ten years in the making. The director, Katsuhiro Otomo, is responsible for the epochal Akira, that masterpiece of futuristic cyberpunk (and, incidentally, the film that in 1988 opened the eyes of the world to Japanese 'toon art), and legions of fans have awaited his followup ever since. Steamboy, on the drawing board since 1995, materializes at last on the screen, and its pre-industrial London isn't all that different from the dystopian Neo-Tokyo of Otomo's earlier cornerstone -- both movies reveal a vision fascinated with the bond forged between human and machine, though here touched by the antiquarian's doting over zeppelins, trains, and the grinding turning of gears. Ray Steam (voiced, in the dubbed version, by Anna Paquim) is a prepubescent inventor in 1866 Manchester, who gets the ball rolling by receiving a mysterious orb in the mail: a contraption of condensed steam, deadly in the wrong hands. In no time, his home is teeming with shadowy characters trying to get the device, and young Ray is kidnapped and shipped off to London for a plot revolving around the legendary Great Exhibition.
Animé is an art form I'm still on first base with, though I'm starting to get the hang of its auteurs -- from what I've seen, Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) is sort of its ecologic fabulist, Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) its pensive humanist, and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) its kinetic existentialist. Otomo, were one to judge from Steamboy alone, is an elaborate spectacle-dispenser, and, indeed, the film's emphasis on gadgetry, sinister conspiracies and bizarre Oedipal knots -- Ray has to confront both his cranky grandfather (Patrick Stewart) and his cyborg dad (Alfred Molina) along the way -- suggest a Steven Spielberg production circa 1985. The theme of promethean science plundered for warfare industry balloons into a full-blown standoff between grabby exploiters, with half London pulverized by the end, yet it is a far more conventional (and plain-looking) affair than Oshii's Innocence last year. Otomo's visual designs are scarcely less than Gilliamesque, but frissons between the genre's rampaging mayhem and the tea-coziness of the setting quickly give way to boring demolition jobs and zipping around. So much steam, so little emotion -- the metal in Robots clanked more cheerfully.
Reviewed March 29, 2005.