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STARRING: Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Amanda Peet, Josh Brolin, Arija Bareikis, Vinissa Shaw, Chjwetel Ejiofor

DIRECTOR: Woody Allen

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for language and adult themes

THE LOWDOWN: Two stories are imagined about the same neurotic, love-seeking woman: one comic, one dramatic.

It's probably a good thing that Woody Allen, at 69, has become America's representative dirty old man. It's not exactly a covetable position, but it may be the only thing that keeps him truly useful to American movies in his self-parody years.

"Melinda and Melinda" is the title of the new Woody Allen movie, a bad, exasperating movie that imagines the same hard-luck neurotic Manhattanite in two different lives, one supposedly comic, the other supposedly dramatic. Not only is neither story particularly engaging but both are, at several different moments, actively awful. It's the movie whose Upper East Side natterings finally caused even some Allen loyalists to wonder aloud why he keeps on producing self-parodying movies on such a clockwork schedule (and even to wonder seriously if the world might be better off if he hung it up completely).

Whatever Allen's relationship to women off-screen, on-screen he loves them. Clearly. And, no matter how the movies turn out, he gives them rich parts that too few others seem to -- sophisticated, intelligent, complicated, funny. And he's got impeccable taste in the right actresses to give them to.

Radha Mitchell, who plays both Melindas in this movie, wouldn't have stumbled on a movie part as rich in allure, neurosis and emotional possibilities as these in two ordinary lifetimes in current American movies.

Chloe Sevigny, whose active film career seemed to be impaled forever on Vincent Gallo's narcissism in "The Brown Bunny," turns out to be not at all career-dead. She plays a small part here and quite smartly, thank you very much. Woody's brittle world suits her. (Elizabeth Berkley, similarly, was a post-"Showgirls" rescue by a Woody who refuses to watch good careers perish in the vagaries of gossip and bad reputation.)

Think of the women he's given wonderful parts to in the past decade, whether the movies turned out well or not -- Tea Leoni, near-sensational in "Hollywood Ending"; Goldie Hawn, utterly different from anything else she's recently done in "Everyone Says I Love You"; Mira Sorvino, Oscar-winning in "Mighty Aphrodite."

True, in exchange for good parts, they have to inhabit a female world that seems bounded on all sides by every woman Woody Allen has ever associated with, beginning with Louise Lasser and going all the way up to Soon-Yi Previn (who was revealed in Barbara Koppel's "Wild Man Blues" to be the most misunderstood young woman in the entire history of tabloid headlines).

But considering the blighted female parts available elsewhere, it's, obviously, a trade-off they're more than willing to make. And if, after seeing Woody's contributions to Hollywood casting research, the rest of Hollywood gets some smart ideas of what to do with them afterward, all the better.

On the other hand, in the history of Woody Allen actors doing positively painful slavish impressions of their director, Will Ferrell here is second only to Kenneth Branagh's appalling turn in "Celebrity." (By contrast, John Cusack's impression of Woody in "Bullets Over Broadway" was almost witty.)

One of the Melindas is a substance-abusing suicidal mess who arrives in Manhattan with a dreadful traumatic past behind her. She blunders into a dinner party and unsettles a lot of settled lives. That's the drama. The comedy follows the other Melinda (also self-destructive) as she maneuvers between struggling actor Will Ferrell and Josh Brolin as an eligible dentist.

The hailstorm of cultural allusions is unusually heavy in this movie, right from the opening parody of the film "My Dinner With Andre" to the music. (Stravinsky for tragedy, Ellington for comedy. Wouldn't it have been nice if he'd been clever enough to reverse that?) And no one ever said he didn't have great taste in cinematographers (the great Vilmos Zsigmond of "The Deer Hunter" and "Deliverance" fame).

Throw in a few (no more than that) funny gags, and it's still a tired, soggy piece of work.

Not bad though as a provider for the highlight reels of a few actresses.