There’s barely a line of dialogue in Woody Allen’s latest film that sounds as if it could be uttered by an actual human being. “Melinda and Melinda” has a clever premise–two playwrights, one a writer of light farces (Wallace Shawn) and the other of heavy dramas (Larry Pine) enter into a friendly argument over lunch about whether life is basically comic or tragic. Another companion offers the beginning of a story–about a young woman intruding unannounced on a Manhattan dinner party–for the two to develop into plots contrasting their points of view. So the two men construct different scenarios about this Melinda character, with Shawn’s presenting her as the central figure in what he promises will be a romantic comedy and Pine’s as a distraught person heading for disaster. But in elaborating this idea, the picture becomes little more than a failed stunt, a would-be magic trick in which the sleight of hand is all too obvious. Perhaps it’s because both tales–which the picture shifts between throughout, with only rare returns to the initial setup featuring Shawn and Pine–are supposed to be overtly “theatrical” that the writing is so arch and pedantic, replete with locutions that sound literary rather than spoken and musty pseudo-intellectual references to figures like Stravinsky and Bartok (although it could just be that, for the most part, it’s poorly delivered). But the fact is that, apart from the specific lines, the two stories are fundamentally weak; this movie isn’t composed of alternating comedy and tragedy so much as alternating sitcom and soap opera. If such is the joke that Allen subversively intended, he’s certainly succeeded; but that’s extremely doubtful, and in any event the telling affords very little pleasure. There’s an occasional clever quip to be unearthed here, but by Woody’s old standards “Melinda and Melinda” is thin gruel indeed.

In the first of the twin stories, a worn, tormented Melinda (Radha Mitchell) breaks in on a dinner being hosted by Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), an old school friend, and her husband Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), an actor hoping to get a role in a play being directed by one of the guests. She explains that she’s in precarious emotional circumstances–she attacked her husband, a powerful man who’s now keeping her children from her, and has attempted suicide–and they agree (though not without Lee’s expressions of reluctance) to put her up. Eventually this Melinda finds romance with Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a smooth pianist-composer, but simultaneously Laurel’s marriage breaks up, and she and Ellis have an affair, the discovery of which devastates the already fragile young woman. In the second story, Melinda is a flaky neighbor who’s for some unexplained reason gobbled down a handful of sleeping pills and intrudes groggily on a dinner being given by Susan (Amanda Peet), a film director hosting a rich businessman whom she hopes will finance her proposed movie, and her nervous failed-actor husband Hobie (the inevitable Allen surrogate, here played by Will Ferrell). Hobie is smitten by Melinda but wracked with guilt as a result; fortunately, Susan cheats on him with her new backer and eventually Hobie can make his true feelings known to the girl. (Those are the bare-bones versions of the tales, of course; there are plenty of other characters floating around the various couples and couples-to-be, but frankly none of them adds terribly much to the mix.)

Obviously there are links between these two narratives–both involve Melindas who are suicidal, both are located among Manhattan’s supposedly artistic set, and both feature actors with no perceptible future–but the connections never take on any particular resonance; they’re just there. The contextual dialogue from Shawn and Pine that’s supposed to elevate the stories to some sort of archetypal status is itself so dry and clumsy–like a badly-delivered college lecture–that it instead points up their essential thinness. And the weaknesses of writing aren’t compensated for by the execution. Rarely has Allen’s “spontaneous” technique looked messier; even the most talented of the actors here often look stiff and stranded, and their line delivery sounds stilted. The only exception among the major performers is Ejiofor, who tosses off his dialogue in an easygoing manner that almost makes it sound genuine, while in what amounts to a cameo Josh Brolin winningly impersonates a moneyed, self-satisfied yuppie dentist. Otherwise everybody seems understandably uncomfortable, with the heaviest burden falling on Ferrell. The SNL stalwart doesn’t succumb to the mistake that Kenneth Branagh made in “Celebrity,” of trying to do a direct impression of Allen, but neither does he find a way of delivering the Woodyesque throwaways in a manner distinctively his own. He’s trapped in comedic limbo, and never escapes. The picture benefits from Vilmos Zsigmond’s reliable cinematography, of course, but Allen’s choice of music is way off this time around. Especially in the “comic” sections, the bubbling accompaniment is intrusive, and not in the amusing way that must have been intended.

One line in “Melinda and Melinda” pretty much sums up the despondency with which one approaches new Woody Allen movies nowadays, after suffering through his recent string of disappointments, pale reflections of his great early pictures. (I found “Hollywood Ending” amusing, but that was just a wispy little fable.) It comes when one character observes, “Life has a malicious way of dealing with great potential.” That’s a bit of dialogue that doesn’t have the faintest hint of true human speech, but it does seem quite perceptive as to what time has done to Woody’s initial promise as one of America’s foremost comedians.