- What Works:Woody Allen. Larry David. There ya go. This is the best thematic version of relativism in Allen’s career.
- Whatever Dosen’t Work: A lot of old and recycled ideas, lines, characters.
- Faux Peter Travers Quote: I’m from New York so I’m not allowed to call Allen’s latest “a dazzling force du Woody.”
Older, wiser and bitter-um-er, Woody Allen returns to New York once again and, once again, nobody seems to care. The dying breed that is print critics, especially the self deified ones from New York, are too cool for Allen and too afraid of seeming out of touch. Instead, they’re too busy sucking Pixar doodle and telling everyone to run out and see “The Proposal” (48 on Metacritic) instead of “Whatever Works” (low 40s). And people will listen, not because they listen to critics (no way) but because the public also dismisses Allen. America’s punishment: his impressive European film spree (“Match Point,” “Scoop,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona”) that will no doubt resume any day (or year) now. His next film is being made in London by the way.
Whatever, Allen has returned after his (justified) cultural exile to make a film about, what else, his neuroses, his creepy old-man lust, his black hole world view and, well, his self! After so many years of all kinds of brilliance (dramatic Woody, comedic/dramatic Woody, light comedy Woody, urbane comedy Woody, dumb comedy Woody, Fellini Woody, Bergman Woody, etc.) there’s not much else to say at this point about his unparalleled body of work except that his latest entry, “Whatever Works,” is vintage Woody Allen “comedy” in terms of plot, dialogue and laid back filmmaking. That is no surprise considering the screenplay is thirty+ years old and was intended for the never-funny Zero Mostel. The always-funny Larry David has stepped in and thank god… for which there is none.
Vintage Allen, yes, with the difference that headliner Larry David does Woody Allen much in the same way Kenneth Branagh did him in “Celebrity.” The pairing of star and director works brilliantly this time because the star, David, is a disciple of the director where as Branagh is an offshoot of Lawrence Oliver. The film is not related to “Celebrity” however. Instead, it’s a healthy mix of the urban pontifications and crabby mentor/young protegee style of “Anything Else” and the sexual configuration /reconfigurations of “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” As David’s imbettered character recoils at “the horror, the horror” of life, calling everyone below his level of “genus” morons and tapeworms and imbeciles and curses all institutions while living in fear of the hell that is other people, he also learns to love thanks to a young visitor Melodie, the good-for-the-first-time Evan Rachael Wood. Against all cosmic odds the relationship ends up working because she likes put downs and he puts everything down, and because she likes listening and he likes talking. And, boy, does he talk. When David wakes up in a cold sweat fearing that the universe is ending the dialogue is familiar but worth re-hearing when coming from Larry David’s mouth.
David’s character Boris Yellnikoff often chastises the young Melodie, a dim (but not really as it turn out) southern belle, for her naive use of cliché among other things. When Boris makes a cliché himself during one of his many rants, she calls him on it. Boris quickly recovers by positing the notion that sometimes the only way to get to the truth of a matter is through cliché. That’s what Allen the writer is doing here. Allen has been at it for so long that when Boris turns to the screen –breaking the fourth wall– to talk to us about how the audience doesn’t seem to be with him towards the end of the film, it feels appropriate even if it’s not the most clever moment of self reflexivity in the always meta Allen’s oeuvre.
The plot follows exactly as one would expect and there are very few surprises in terms of the plot or Allen’s approach. That’s fine by me because, remember, “Whatever Works” is light Allen and only fools should expect Allen to break new ground every year, especially with his comedies. Some years we get “Match Point” and every calls the film genus and Allen a comeback figure while other years we get “Scoop” and everyone freaks out, saying he’s lost his touch. I always find this auteur alarmism amusing as it fails to take into account the fact that sometimes Allen just needs to make a film for the sake of making a film! In that respect “Whatever Works” is the stretch before his workout resumes again.
With characters like Patricia Clarkson as Melodie’s mother (who goes from Bible belt babbling to New York hippie in a New York minute) and Ed Bagley Jr. as her father (who goes from homophobic redneck to, um, something else in a New York second) to Boris’ eye rolling friends (oh, how I love Michael McKean, even when he’s not doing much in a movie) to the Brit hunk played by Henry Cavill that tries to steal Melodie away from Boris (he’s the film’s weakest link), the supporting cast is larger than I expected and, for the most part, amusing. I especially, and for reasons I cannot explain, enjoyed watching Ed Begley Jr. join Allen’s universe (I’m hoping he becomes the new Tony Roberts). So the cast is nice even though I found myself a bit disappointed that David’s character gets a bit lost in the plot towards the third act. Still, Boris’ presence is strong throughout the picture and, besides, Allen may have made the right choice in cutting back a bit from him because a little bit of Boris (and David) goes a long way. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is great, but great in 30 minute bursts. Two hours of David is a different story. And while I’m on the subject: is Larry David any good here? Yes, of course he is, he’s great at negotiating his own style with Allen’s voice and I hope he works with Allen again and again. But is he any good as an actor? No, but of course he isn’t, he’s Larry David and Larry David gets a pass because… he’s Larry David.
Belittling kids and befouling bathrooms (while obsessive compulsively singing “Happy Birthday” to himself), Boris is a mean bastard but what surprised me most about this film is how optimistic it ends up becoming. The title itself is a reference to Boris’ insistence that the “chamber of horrors” we call life is so bleak and oppressive against the human condition that whatever happiness we can squeeze out of the toothpaste tube of life should be taken and embraced. The film ends up being a highly profound relativistic ode to finding happiness on whatever terms we can because life is as short as Woody Allen. The film even manages to end with the shot of a group hug where all characters embrace each other in a harmonious circle. In the drama/comedy “Away We Go,” sentimentality is cheap and used as a device. In this film it’s touching and earned because characters are able to grow and learn while still remaining the same flawed characters.
“Whatever Works” is a comfort in a way only Allen films can be comforting. They’re fun, they are cynicle and they are reliable. It’s like snuggling up next to a fluffy pillow every night… that’s cold, prickly and always reminds your head that mortality is imminent and the darkness of death is nothing compared to the darkness of your room at night.