Woody Allen would like to be Ingmar Bergman, but he’s really Buster Keaton. He’s a tragedian, trapped in a comic’s sensibility. No doubt he feels the situation is tragic, but every time he says that, audiences laugh.

Allen makes quirky movies which attempt to work out the tensions between his dual-sided nature. His most successful attempts were Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters, the latter a remake, believe it or not, of Anna Karenina, which shows just how seriously Allen would like to be taken?#34;if only he weren’t so damned funny.

One of his strongest efforts in some time is his current release, Melinda and Melinda, which tells two very different stories about the same character, using the same initial premise, framed by “Dinner with Wally.”

Wallace Shawn, who hit it big in the indie film My Dinner with Andre 25 years ago, reprises his role, more or less, as a dinner companion at a New York restaurant with a group of friends discussing the stark differences between tragic and comic views of life. To illustrate, one of the diners tosses out a story’s beginning (a mysterious woman comes to the door, interrupting a dinner party) and the two implied playwrights present (one dramatic, one comic) spin out the rest of the tale for the edification of the movie-going audience.

The two scenarios share only one character (played by Radha Mitchell) although they share a number of motifs and allusions, including Aladdin’s lamp. Mitchell’s performance in the “tragic” tale is a tour de force. In the comic version, she’s overshadowed by Will Ferrell, who plays one of the best “Woody surrogates” in some time.

Both stories are beautifully written. Allen has become a master of dialogue, and even following a year of strongly written films (e.g. Sideways and After Sunset) this one stands out.

The two stories intercut back and forth, so the tragedy never gets too depressing and the comedy never gets overly cloying. Some of the lines are classic Woody Allen. The married Ferrell at one point expresses to his friend his guilt over falling in love with Melinda: “I’m dreaming of kissing her one minute and the next I’m on trial at Nuremberg.”

Allen’s films aren’t terribly deep, yet they’re always refreshingly honest (especially about sexual mores) and always artfully observed. The artifice of the exercise does allow for some overlap. There are laughs in the tragedy and insight in the comedy, though overall, Allen has always been better at observing the foibles of human nature than saying anything particularly profound about them.

But the contrast at least allows him to prove a point?#34;that he’s capable of writing a serious work that can move an audience, even while he’s alternately making them laugh.

May Allen’s deeply divided nature continue to produce such enjoyably creative efforts.

The ending, by the way, is the snappiest I’ve ever seen in a film.

?#34;Ken Trainor

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