Whatever Works

Dir: Woody Allen

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

92 Minutes

Yay. It’s that time of the year again when Woody Allen fans dust off their pre-scripted response and answer the dreaded question: how was it? Ready? Here it goes: “Woody Allen is still a vitally talented film genius. While Allen’s films, including Whatever Works, over the past decade don’t measure up to his masterpieces – they lack the nonstop laughs of Sleeper (1973), the bittersweet zing of Annie Hall (1977), the romantic vision of Manhattan (1979), the novelistic complexity of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), or the dark philosophical pull of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) – they are still a remarkably diverse and inventive bunch of movies, varying slightly in quality, but all exuberant and tricky in their own way. In a just universe, Woody’s recent body of work would enable him to guard his title as one of the consistently best American directors. No great filmmaker has ever been expected to make masterpiece after masterpiece. Why then are you so hard on Woody, who has continued to craft superior entertainments, even if they’re not as ambitious as much of his earlier movies? Many say that he’s been repeating himself for the last 10 years, an absurdly inaccurate claim given the striking diversity of his latest phase of work. He has integrated themes of art, love, New York, London, Barcelona and existential distress into an escapist musical, period pieces, slapstick comedies about blue-collar anxiety and filmmaking, acerbic confessional films about the narcissism of writers and the poison of fame, a genre exercise about the thin line between laughter and despair, a grim crime drama and a romantic and melancholic sex comedy. He has indeed proven as resourceful as any contemporary director in finding different contexts and tones with which to explore his preferred preoccupations…wait…where are you going? Fuck you then!”

After the failure of his marriage, career and suicide attempt, world-class misanthrope and self-proclaimed genius Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), spends his days berating the unlucky children that study chess with him and irritating his friends with his never-ending tirades about the worthlessness of absolutely everything. A former Columbia professor who almost won a Nobel Prize for Quantum Mechanics, Boris thinks he’s the only one who really understands the meaningless of all human endeavors and the black chaos of the universe. One night, Boris finds Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a young runaway on his doorstep and, after calling her a brainless twit too weak to survive in New York, allows her to stay for a few nights. Despite Boris’ savage put-downs (some of the insults truly are hilarious) and she taking every sarcastic comment he makes completely literally, Melody falls for her benefactor. Those few nights turn into marriage and a life that is surprisingly satisfying for both of them. The thin story of their romance, which takes place mostly off-screen, is bolstered when Melody’s parents get word of the union and march up to New York to sort things out. Mom (Patricia Clarkson) a pastel-plastered, high-strung Southern lady enters, faints and morphs swiftly into a black-clad New York conceptual artist. Dad (Ed Begley Jr.), a religious fundamentalist, arrives in town to retrieve his wife and his daughter, but it takes just one brief encounter at a bar to similarly recruit him into the laissez-faire New York relationships everyone else adopts at the at the flip of a switch.

Amid the plot there are lots of talky conversations at New York landmarks and outdoor cafes, all of them taking place in the rarefied, mostly imaginary New York Allen has celebrated throughout his career. It’s a joy to see him back in this territory, yet the story feels stale as a result of the slight plot, slighter characters and carelessly lazy storytelling recycling the neuroses-fueled charm of his earlier work. The story tends to ramble and drop some characters for long periods of time. Boris, in particular, spends much of the film doing nothing more than simply commenting on what everyone else is up to. Allen shoves the story’s darker elements over to the side in favor of a neatly wrapped happy ending.

Whatever Works is a fun and funny sit; a dose of old-school Allen (he wrote the script around the same time as Annie Hall) but lazily directed by, what I suspect, a tired old man. With their grouchy and cynical demeanor, Allen and David are kindred spirits, but the casting of David is off. While Allen may not be a great actor, he has the gift of pathos, the rare ability, a la Buster Keaton, to be not only a funny little man, but also a deeply sad little man. David gets the laughs with his raving turn, smirking and ranting his way through the movie, but never quite captures the melancholy and self-loathing underlying Boris’ bluster. He blends his Curb Your Enthusiasm crankiness with Allen’s wordy intellectualism into an awkward hybrid, failing to strike the right balance of exasperating and endearingly neurotic.

David’s performance is matched by the contrivances of Allen’s story as a circle of kooks and oddballs enter into Boris’ orbit despite his off-putting demeanor. Allen creates stereotypes on one extreme only to turn them into stereotypes on the other extreme. The transformations are funny, and Wood, Begley and especially Clarkson bring depth and credibility to their characters that David’s Boris lacks. Nevertheless, the changes they undergo are gimmicky, the stuff of big, cheap laughs, not of memorable stories with active protagonists.

I suspect the problem with Allen is that funny comes too easily for him; he’s a clever dialogue, one-line zinger and joke machine. In an interview, he said he was a lazy director, and that if he has to choose between getting the best take possible or making it to the game on time, he always chooses the game. He must have shot Whatever Works in the midst of the Knicks season. Still… so what if his latest films aren’t as good as his older ones? I’m glad Allen is a stubborn artist who sticks around, desperately attached to his own vision, which he continues to bring to the screen every year with generally impressive and always funny results. This in itself is worthy not only of respect, but of celebration.

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