Melinda and Melinda throws Woody Allen's two cents into the alternative-reality forum. Two playwrights, one tragic and the other comic, are sitting in a New York bistro arguing their respective Weltanschauungs, when a tablemate proposes to tell a true story, and let the playwrights decide whether it's a tragedy or a comedy. We ourselves don't hear the story, beyond the first step of a woman arriving unannounced at an apartment door during a dinner party. Dissolve to the end of the story, and each playwright now gets to put his own spin on it, taking turns reeling out the plotline. The two tales are enacted by completely separate casts, excepting Radha Mitchell, the alternative Melindas. Like most of Allen's films, even at his lowest ebb, this one has a clear point of inspiration, an idea, a concept, a conceit. But it's a little more of a challenge than usual, a hard job with no easy solution, and what's certain is that Allen wasn't up to it: an empty structure waiting to be furnished. Though there are, for sure, some clever permutations of shared elements (the single-malt Scotch, the magic lamp, the eligible dentist), the two stories seem insufficiently differentiated, even down to their smothering buttery light: the tragic insufficiently intense, the comic insufficiently funny. It is sometimes, as we switch back and forth, hard to remember which is which; and ultimately hard to imagine, as the plotlines diverge, what the "true" story could originally have been. The whole thing feels a bit monotonous, and yet -- the strength of the structure -- we keep hanging on to see where it's headed. (My own wish would have been for the "real" Melinda to turn up at the bistro at the end, looking inscrutably different from either version. I didn't get my wish.) Mitchell, in what might have been a virtuoso role for a Meryl Streep or a Judy Davis, is herself insufficiently differentiated: kinkier hair and more cigarettes for tragedy. Put more harshly, she reveals not much range and not much personality. Will Ferrell, assigned to the comedy section, takes home the booby prize, however, for the most slavish imitation of Woody Allen (not on screen in this one). Chloë Sevigny, on the opposite hand, as a "Park Avenue Princess" in the tragedy section, manages to do with Allen's dialogue what she did also with Whit Stillman's in The Last Days of Disco, and what no one else can quite do: sound perfectly natural. (Isn't it about time, seven years after Disco, for the next Whit Stillman film?) Brooke Smith, even while slipping now and again into a recognizable Allen cadence, does pretty well, too. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Dirty Pretty Things, uses his deep-dish eyes to prove himself as sympathetic a charmer here as a worrier there.
In My Country takes up the South African apartheid problem after its solution, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the mid-Nineties offered amnesty to political criminals, provided they could demonstrate a political motive for their crimes, in exchange for their public confession and confrontation of their victims. Juliette Binoche plays an Afrikaner with a conscience (also with a pleasanter French accent), a poet who is covering the hearings on the radio; and Samuel L. Jackson plays a reporter for The Washington Post, an African-American who, over a century removed from slavery, is covering the hearings with a hotter head and infinite impatience: "How can it be news," he fumes over the placement of his stories on an inside page, "when the victims are black?" Their different approaches to a common concern form the rocky foundation of an intimate relationship; and it's the relationship, in fact, that forms the foundation of the film. Director John Boorman, long interested in the chasms between people, is not one to shy away from the Big Theme -- the plundering of the Amazon jungle in The Emerald Forest, the Burmese bloodbath of the late-Eighties in Beyond Rangoon -- but he has heretofore preferred to couch the theme in a tale of adventure, which, if it doesn't quite muffle the message, at least affords ample opportunity for his voracious camera eye. The mounted animal heads on the walls of an unapologetic torturer (Brendan Gleeson) will not serve as an example of that; still less will the talky, table-and-chairs tribunal scenes. But the photography by Seamus Deasy is handsome all the same, warm and lustrous; and the lovely leisure moment of Binoche and her black sound technician out on the dance floor, in perfect union, grants a fleeting glimpse of utopia; and the partings at the end really do tug at your heart. These people have gone through something together, and at the far side of it they go their separate ways.