Dir: Woody Allen, US2004. 99 mins

After a run of lightweight comedies that caused evenhardcore supporters to lose patience, Woody Allen achieves a heartening returnto form with his most idiosyncratic and substantial film in some time. Agenuine tragi-comedy - in that it counterpoints two parallel stories, tragicand comic - Melinda And Melinda findsAllen stretching himself more, and clearly enjoying himself more, than in anyfilm since 1999's Sweet And Lowdown.Its complex structure and speculative seriousness mean that Melinda And Melinda is closest inAllen's canon to such heavyweight ensemble pieces as Crimes And Misdemeanors and HannahAnd Her Sisters.

Rich material clearly stimulates an imaginatively matchedcast, especially Australian lead Radha Mitchell, who scores a career best astwo faces of the hapless Melinda. Its somewhat cerebral tenor means that thefilm is unlikely to be as much a box-office crowd-pleaser as Allen's Small Time Crooks, but it should performconsiderably better than such little-seen recent duds as The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending (the latter still unreleased in the UK). And itcan certainly be expected to be Allen's best-performing film for some time inEurope, where his most faithful constituency still lies.

Framed as a symposium on comedy and tragedy, the film beginsin a Manhattan restaurant where playwrights Max (Larry Pine) and Sy (Shawn)argue that the same story can be an example of either genre, depending how itis told. Max's tragic tale unfolds on the screen: a distraught woman namedMelinda (Mitchell) arrives unexpectedly at a dinner given by her old friendLaurel (Sevigny) and her actor husband Lee (Miller). As the story gets underway, Sy cuts in with his comic version, in which Melinda is the neighbour ofunemployed actor Hobie (Ferrell) and his thrusting film-maker wife Susan(Peet). The film cuts continuously between the two versions of the tale, whichturn out to have distinctive parallels. In the tragic variant, Melinda - havingleft her husband and been jailed for shooting her lover - seems to be facingbetter times with dashing classical composer Ellis (Ejiofor). In the comedyversion, Hobie falls hopelessly for Melinda, only for Susan to fix her up withGreg (Josh Brolin), a preposterously glamorous dentist and big-game hunter("The Ernest Hemingway of the root canal set," as Hobie calls him). Needless tosay, one of the film's life lessons is that tragedy often leaks into comedy,and vice versa.

Melinda And Melindais especially heartening in that, while it recycles some familiar Allen tropes(notably Ferrell's character, a hapless Allen-esque schmuck sufferingunrequited love), it dispenses with some of his more irksome trademarks. Here,for example, there are no older men mooning over brainy but volatile younggamines: with its adult cast of characters, this is Allen's most adult work ina while.

Allen pulls off a tough formal challenge in that the filmworks both as drama and as comedy. In the comic half, Ferrell gives a charmingand compelling turn as one of Allen's most convincing surrogates yet, andthough he fires off his share of one-liners, they are sharper and moresparingly used than in Allen's last film AnythingElse, which relied too desperately on failsafe comic ammo. Narratively too,the film's ping-pong structure functions elegantly - if at times schematically- as an inquiry into the pleasures and complexities of storytelling.

The cast shine, sometimes very much against type - withSevigny playing a spoilt and somewhat staid "Park Avenue princess" and Ferrell,in the one outright comic performance, proving a lot more sensitive than hismainstream goonish roles would lead you to expect. Ejiofor is suavelyphilosophical, in the first substantial role for a black actor in one ofAllen's films, while Miller excels as an obnoxious, self-obsessed thespian.

But the really dazzling performance - or performances - comefrom Mitchell, ringing the changes between the two halves of Melinda'spersonality, one relatively well-adjusted, the other neuroticallyself-lacerating, but both highly credible as a self-described latter-day MadameBovary.

The early scene where the tragic Melinda gives an elegant,stark speech explaining her downfall is a tour de force, both for Mitchell andfor Allen as a writer. Further pleasures in the film include carefully-threadedleitmotifs in both halves, a clever musical conceit that pitches Stavinsky(tragedy) against Duke Ellington (comedy), and an opulent warmth to VilmosZsigmond's photography that makes this the most visually satisfying of Allen'srecent films.

Prod cos: GravierProductions, Fox Searchlight
Scr: Woody Allen
UK dist: Twentieth Century-Fox
Prods: Letty Aronson Jack RollinsCharles H. Joffe Stephen Tenenbaum Helen Robin
DoP: Vilmos Zsigmond
Prod des : Santo Loquasto
Ed: Alisa Lepselter
Main cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, WillFerrell, Jonny Lee Miller, Radha Mitchell, Amanda Peet, Chloë Sevigny, WallaceShawn