Having directed his last four films abroad, director Woody Allen returns to his beloved New York for his 40th feature, Whatever Works, which opens this Friday at the Lagoon Cinema. Many of Allen’s fans will not only rejoice to see New York as his backdrop again, but will appreciate the casting of Larry David to play the “Woody Allen” role that Allen himself played up until the mid-90s: the atheist, neurotic leading male looking for love and disapproving of everyone along the way. (David had minor roles in two previous Allen films; in Radio Days, he played the communist neighbor.)
Whatever Works was originally written in the 1970s with Zero Mostel (probably best known for playing Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s original film The Producers) in mind to play the selfish misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff. To say that some of the 30-year-old material does feel awfully dated is an understatement, but to David’s credit, the co-creator of Seinfeld and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm slides right into Boris and doesn’t let up.
Allen makes Yellnikoff unlikeable right from the get-go as Boris and a few of his chums sit around a table, when Boris stands up, looks directly into the camera and begins speaking to the audience a la Annie Hall, telling us that we’re not going to like him. David’s gift as a writer/actor himself on Curb has been making situations at times unbearable to watch, but we laugh anyway, knowing that David always tries to figure out a way to resolve his own problems, only to make matters worse. Whatever Works doesn’t quite throw Boris to the wolves in the kind of absurd situations that David gets into in Curb but his choice of weapon is still the same: words.
When he’s not insulting children playing chess, the former physicist (he’s an almost-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics) and self-proclaimed genius attempts a failed suicide by jumping out his window, only then to divorce his wife and move downtown to a shabby apartment. Coming home one night he discovers Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a runaway girl from Mississippi, who asks for his help; much to Boris’s dismay, he lets her in. Wood’s portrayal of a naive former beauty pageant star, who takes all of Boris’s sarcastic remarks and doesn’t seem bothered by his mostly mean-spirited threats and words makes this perhaps the best scene in the film. A few days later, Melody hasn’t left and seems content to stay with Boris for as long as possible.
Melody gets a job as a dog walker, she meets another dog walker, a boy right around her age, and she agrees to go out on a date with him. Boris hopes the date is a success and Melody will finally move out of his place, but when she comes back from the date early and drunk, she says the date was a bust and admits to having a secret crush on Boris. Boris is surprised, obviously, but within minutes of this revelation Boris tells the audience that they got married. This scenario is oddly similar to Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan, where Allen himself dates a girl half his age in high school student Tracy, famously played by Mariel Hemingway—only in that film, they didn’t get married.
A year passes, and Melody’s mom Marietta (a glowing Patricia Clarkson) shows up wanting to take Melody back to the south with her, only to discover her daughter has married Boris. Marietta cannot believe Melody has married this old, bald, unlikeable man and hatches a scheme to break off their marriage by finding a younger suitor for Melody.
The film has its moments, especially when Clarkson, who steals every scene she’s in, shows up in search of Melody only to be sidetracked by one of Boris’s friends, Brockman, who expresses interest in Marietta’s photographs, transforming her into a bohemian artist who has steamy love affairs with Brockman and the art gallery owner. Whatever Works is not a major achievement for Allen and has a storyline that feels recycled from Allen’s earlier films, but nonetheless, I’ll take a slightly above average Woody Allen film over most American independents and loud, obnoxious Hollywood fare (such as the latest Michael Bay film). Whatever Works does have the expected quotient of quotable lines, and the relationship between David and Wood relationship has some inspired and painfully funny moments, but the last quarter of the film runs out of steam.
Whatever Works is flawed entertainment for sure, but should be enough for Woody Allen fans until his next film, reportedly being shot in London, opens next year.
Jim Brunzell III (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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