Sunday, April 17, 2011

Whatever Works Movie Review: Not Classic Woody Allen, but with a Vintage Appeal

First published at American Madness on 6 November 2009.
I am reposting it here untouched.

Woody Allen has worked tirelessly in the last 30 some odd years turning out a new film every year like clockwork. His great period was from the late 70’s into the mid 80’s when he made such classics as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Radio Days. Through the 90’s he managed to maintain a steady stream of well-written, sharply funny films achieving greatness once again with Deconstructing Harry in 1998. Since then he’s had a series of mostly forgettable films ranging from the atrocious Curse of the Jade Scorpion to the mediocre Melinda and Melinda.

Finally, after four European-set films and a long absence from the New York that he knows so well, he has returned to that familiar territory in Whatever Works, in which Larry David plays Boris Yelnikoff (What a name!). The character is the typical Allen alter-ego – a neurotic, self-obsessed, sarcastic, caustic middle-aged man who thinks he has a better grasp on philosophy and life than anyone else around him (or the women around him anyway).

The funny thing is that I immediately recognized Boris as an archetypal Woody Allen character, with his philosophical views, late-night panic attacks about death and morose view of humanity, but in thinking about it later I could scarcely come up with previous Allen characters who exhibit the same tendencies in the same way.  Thankfully Larry David strikes the right balance in his performance. For an actor who plays a character with no redeeming qualities and whom I absolutely despise on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” I wondered what would happen here. Surprisingly, somehow in spite (or perhaps because) of his repellant attitudes, Boris turns out to be hilariously appealing and David allows him just the right amount of humanity at the right moments.

In the opening prologue, Allen uses the stylistic flourish, employed to great effect in Annie Hall, of having Boris talk directly to camera, explaining that he failed at trying to commit suicide. But don’t get turned off thinking you’re in for a soul-searching film. Boris didn’t throw himself out the window from depression, but from his profound realization that eventually everyone gets cancer and dies.

Boris laments most of humanity as nothing more than inchworms, imbeciles and zombie morons (such as the young children to whom he frustratingly and hilariously attempts to teach chess). Then one night fate flings him a curveball in the form of Melodie, a young runaway from Mississippi. Evan Rachel Wood has been an actress worth watching since her breakout performance in 2003’s Thirteen, but I did not recognize her and was surprised to see her listed in the credits. I kept thinking that Amy Adams would have been perfect casting 10 years ago, but it’s a testament to Wood’s performance that she disappeared so deeply I didn’t even recognize her.

From the outset, Boris hurls slings, barbs and insults at Melodie. Despite this she chooses to stay in his apartment while trying to find a job to eventually pay her own way. This presents the makings of a Pygmalion transformation, but Boris even remarks that Melodie is so unfortunately deprived of anything resembling intelligence that such a change would be impossible. Instead, she becomes a kind of parrot of Boris’s opinions on life and the arts, finally dismissing a young man she meets because he and his friends are without culture. Wouldn’t you know it that it’s not long before Boris and Melodie get married? What? The middle-aged man gets to sleep with the young ingénue? In a Woody Allen movie? Never!

Although you can see most of the major plot developments coming from a mile away, I don’t want to reveal too much except to say that Patricia Clarkson turns up halfway through as Melodie’s mother. Clarkson is an actress who injects refreshing maturity into any role she takes on and in a Woody Allen film (often replete with adolescent fantasy) her presence is a breath of fresh air at a point when things are just beginning to get stale.

What follows is an enactment of Allen’s pop-psychology view of what happens when deep-South family values conservatives show up in the big Yankee city. Of course everyone has tremendously good luck in their endeavors (including suicidal vaults out of windows).

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