Larry David & Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works
Larry David & Evan Rachel Wood
How big a bastard can Woody Allen build a screenplay around and still generate a modicum of audience goodwill?
The answer: not this big.
Coming off last year's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," the freshest Allen film in more than a decade, "Whatever Works" (his 40th feature as director) plays like a hoary old Broadway stage comedy yanked, reluctantly, into the present.
It comes by its retro hoariness honestly.
Around the time he co-starred in director Martin Ritt's "The Front" (1976) with Zero Mostel, Allen cooked up "Whatever Works" with Mostel in mind for the lead role, that of a titanically misanthropic quantum physicist. His worldview is tempered by a relationship with a much, much younger Southern runaway, lost in New York City, land of mopes and dreams.
Mostel might've made this ranting foghorn of a character memorable, but "Whatever Works" has made it to the screen with the more modestly talented Larry David, best known for "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
He plays, or rather yells, the role of Boris Yellnikoff, a freelance chess tutor and full-time kvetch who calls everyone "moron" and "idiot" (you'd think Allen could come up with more distinctive insults).
Boris takes in the sarcasm-averse ditzoid Melody, played by Evan Rachel Wood. The movie, like Boris, condescends like mad toward this Mississippi bombshell-belle, as Boris does a Pygmalion number on her, teaching her the joys of the knish and other delicacies. The "Pygmalion" parallel is plenty clear even without the following line, in one of Boris' lengthy direct-address monologues to the camera:
"I only wish I could do a Pygmalion on her."
She's acting in an entirely different comic universe, but stage-trained Patricia Clarkson does what she can as Melody's mother, come to fetch her daughter and, as it turns out, to meet the object of her daughter's wholly implausible affections.
Lower Manhattan and environs have an instantaneous effect on this fundamentalist right-winger, a symbol of all the "family values morons" and "gun morons" derided by Boris. (Michael McKean and Conleth Hill have precious little to say, or do, as his pals.)
In an eye-blink, Clarkson's character turns into sexually voracious bohemian -- a changed woman, much as Ed Begley Jr. (as Melody's tightly buttoned father) arrives later and undergoes a similar change.
"Whatever Works" begins with Groucho Marx's rendition of "Hello, I Must Be Going" from "Animal Crackers," heard underneath the opening credits with the iconic Woody Allen typeface.
Even if you're a huge fan of Groucho and that song, even if you're a huge fan of Woody Allen's best stuff (however you define it), the second Groucho begins the tune you cannot help feeling a weariness settle over the enterprise, because Allen has been here before. And the movie hasn't even started yet.
It wasn't simply a change of scenery that brought something different to "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and to the best of Allen's London-set films, "Match Point."
Those scripts worked familiar themes of chance and fate and luck, but Allen seemed more engaged and on his game.
"Whatever Works" is more like "Oh, Whatever." The detail work is practically nonexistent. As usual, Allen acknowledges no cultural middle ground between the soulless noise symbolized by a rock band called Anal Sphincter and the grace and class captured by the soundtrack's signature theme, "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)."
I agree, it is a lovely standard. But in this picture, it's Boris who's the sphincter.
"Whatever Works" Movie Trailer
Whatever Works MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material).
Running time: 1:32.
Starring: Larry David (Boris); Evan Rachel Wood (Melody); Patricia Clarkson (Marietta); Ed Begley Jr. (John); Michael McKean (Joe); Conleth Hill (Leo).
Written and directed by Woody Allen;
Produced by Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum.
A Sony Pictures Classics release.
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