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It’s never difficult to find the sadness in Woody Allen’s films—of lovers gone wrong, of writers blocked, of an increasingly shriveled leading man successfully wooing a parade of ingenues. But in Allen’s latest, Melinda and Melinda, the story of a depressed woman who crashes a dinner party, you don’t even have to look beneath the barbs to discover the misfortune. For half of it, at least: Melinda’s tale is told two different ways, courtesy of a pair of playwrights who are arguing over whether life is essentially tragic or comic. Naturally, one telling emphasizes the anguish in the woman’s experiences while the other—allegedly—highlights the humor. As both unfold in alternating scenes, however, the only conclusion the experiment seems to support is that, as always, concept and execution are sometimes miles apart in quality. And that a certain auteur has officially lost it.

It might have helped to have a leading character an audience could tolerate. Melinda (Finding Neverland’s Radha Mitchell) is said to be “one of those heroines too passionate for existence on this planet.” Sure, such an operatic description might make anyone’s sad eyes seem swoon-worthy; problem is, darling Melinda says it about herself. She also tries to wrangle sympathy about her dating slump by telling her friends that men seem to prefer women who aren’t put-together, and that she “you know…can look pretty stylish.” Yeah, that’s it.

To emphasize the weariness of Melinda’s world, Mitchell sleepwalks through the tragic half of the movie, which finds her unstable character showing up months late to stay with old friends Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and needing nurturing after a divorce, a murder trial, and a failed custody battle. (“My children. They were the light of my life.”) In this version, Lee is a struggling actor while Laurel, a daughter of privilege, “shops and lunches.” Both are as pompous and insufferable as their guest.

In the ha-ha interpretation, Melinda is a kooky stranger who knocks on a neighboring apartment’s door after she swallows 28 sleeping pills. This time, the struggling actor is Hobie (Will Ferrell), who’s something of a house husband to Susan (Amanda Peet), a high-strung film director trying to secure funds for her latest project, The Castration Sonata. Susan is irked that Melinda has interrupted her dinner with a potential producer; Allen stand-in Hobie, meanwhile, falls in love.

As exemplified by Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn’s playwrights, whose terribly unbelievable meeting of the minds awkwardly sets up the film—“No, no, no, life is comic, I say!”—Melinda’s characters may appear to be carbon copies of Allen’s usual high-minded Manhattanites. And the setting of luxe restaurants and even luxer apartments certainly seems right. Polished Laurel even attempts a Woodyism or two: “I don’t know if that’s his type—she’s probably got augmented cleavage.” But Sevigny’s delivery is more wooden than sparkling. Then comes along verbosely despondent Melinda with her starched dialogue: “Reality set in, in the person of a private detective.” And when did you ever hear someone spit out that an untruth was a “baseless canard”?

Worse, besides a few touches of jazz, there’s little in Allen’s treatment of his material that makes one of the stories seem funnier than the other—and neither is very funny at all. Ferrell seems terribly uncomfortable—and just plain wrong—in the role of stammering nebbish, never quite nailing the rhythms of his Allenesque lines and coming off rather like Buddy the Elf in his attempts to look neurotic. That kid-stuck-inside-a-grownup schtick just doesn’t work when he’s delivering lines that begin “We never make love anymore…” And though Mitchell gamely tries to differentiate her two characters by more than just her hairstyle, neither of her navel-gazing Melindas becomes endearing, even when both eventually fall in love.

And though it’s the least of the film’s problems, the abrupt shifts between the two stories just as you’re getting invested in one ensure that eventually you’ll be invested in neither. That’s probably Allen’s untreacly attempt to show that life is, well, a bit of sadness and a bit of funniness, and that whichever one you’re experiencing at the moment has a good deal to do with how you approach things. As Shawn’s author points out, “Tragedy confronts; comedy escapes.” Melinda and Melinda, however, merely annoys.

Now, a movie such as Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous? That’s real proof that comedy escapes. The follow-up to 2000’s Miss Congeniality may aim to carry on the message that ballsiness and beauty don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it really doesn’t have a thought in its pretty little head.

Sandra Bullock reprises her role as Gracie Hart, the snorting, sloppy FBI agent who goes undercover in a beauty pageant and discovers her inner poofiness. If you found Gracie’s complete transition from grubby to girly by the first installment’s close a tad unbelievable, you’ll be relieved to find that she’s back to her nonfabulous self here—but, wait, she’s also in love. And when unseen fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt in the first film) dumps her, Gracie decides to follow her boss’s suggestion that, because she’s no longer good for undercover work, she should shellac her true self once again in order to become the “face” of the bureau—or, as Gracie calls it, “FBI Barbie.”

Unfortunately, scripter Marc Lawrence (who worked on MC 1 with Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas) again has Gracie embrace her shiny side too fully. (The advice she gives a tomboyish grade-schooler interested in becoming an agent, for example, is to “try a ponytail.”) But that’s not enough to deflate this cup o’ froth. Overall, new director John Pasquin’s refusal to delve into the usual trappings of sequelness—too many pratfalls, too many references to the first movie, too much crazee stuff—makes Miss Congeniality 2 a relatively inoffensive diversion. His restraint is all the more admirable given the story’s minefield of a path, which includes friends in peril and a campy (yet, set to Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” oddly invigorating) showdown in the capital of wackiness, Las Vegas.

Like Bratt, Michael Caine is also absent; Gracie’s bitchy beauty consultant has been replaced by The Drew Carey Show’s Diedrich Bader as the yawningly queeny Joel. The loss of Caine is hardly felt, however—and Bratt’s absence, let’s admit, is an improvement—after the sequel introduces Regina King as (wink, wink, cinephiles) Sam Fuller, a transplanted pit bull of an agent who’s forced to become Gracie’s bodyguard. King, who most recently played fiery backup singer Margie Hendricks in Ray, is again all potent—and funny—attitude, whether Sam is rolling her eyes at Gracie’s sunny sarcasm or scowling as she walks out to help Gracie demonstrate a self-defense move on Regis. Also unexpectedly hilarious is William Shatner, who makes the most of his few lines as girlish pageant MC Stan Fields.

But it’s Bullock’s show to steal, and her Gracie is again the ideal blend of smarty-pants, smartass, and dork. Lawrence keeps Gracie’s feed of one-liners steady—she prefaces a compliment to Sam by saying, “Even though you refuse to dress up or separate those eyebrows….” But it’s the way Bullock spits out a headdress feather or screws up her face as she’s dealing with Sam that gets the movie’s most well-earned laughs. And that’s no baseless canard.CP