Monday, July 06, 2009

Whatever Works

WHATEVER WORKS (Woody Allen, 2009)

WHATEVER WORKS is Woody Allen's fortieth feature film as director. Once again he uses the cinematic forum to voice his ideas and fears about love and death while cracking some jokes along the way.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a classic version of the Allen protagonist, is a New York intellectual obsessed with his own mortality. Boris may be a string theorist whose genius almost snared him a Nobel Prize, but his true calling is as a professional neurotic. Boris often seems happier when he's miserable. Lord knows he tries to make lemons when life gives him lemonade. Boris dumps his rich, highly compatible wife and jumps out of a window intent to end it all. Since the universe has a twisted sense of humor, he survives and thus has something else to grumble about.

Moving on, Boris finds contentment living alone and following his routines--or as much contentment as an agitated misanthrope can have--but his life gets upended when he meets Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a beauty pageant queen from Mississippi who has run away from home to make it in the Big Apple. With little more than a high school letterman's jacket to her name, Melodie needs a place to stay--temporarily, of course. He's resistant to having his space invaded but eventually agrees to let her crash for a night or two.

Then a funny thing happens. Boris discovers that he doesn't mind having Melodie around. She listens with rapt attention to his rants about people and accepts his theories and cultured tastes as her own.

On CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM David has refined an acerbic personality that turns out to be a perfect match for Boris and his acid-tinged worldview, an increasingly common character trait in Allen's movies. Bitterness has been creeping into the writer-director's work, so it helps that David, eminently comfortable in the Woody Allen role, brings an amused fatalism to the part that keeps this rather toxic-sounding man from becoming unlikable.

Boris kvetches about stupid people a lot, but David's body language tends to reflect an attitude of humored indifference. Allen also eases up on coming off like a crank when it becomes clear that Boris' intolerance and ritual bound behavior, such as his hand washing, are just secular versions of the religious dogma he rejects. Boris may not be a big stretch for David to play, but he makes a consistently funny curmudgeon.

Wood ends up being a better foil for David than expected and makes Melodie sufficiently convincing in the story, which is a pretty tall order. At first her airheaded, molasses-accented character seems like the worst of Allen's conception of non-New Yorkers, but Wood's bright-eyed, irony-free performance has charm and innocence to nicely offset the film's aged astringency. Allen continues to paint a target on his back by having another pretty young thing go gaga for an old man. The May/December romance in WHATEVER WORKS is pretty implausible. Thankfully it's the amusing collision of the brainy and the ditsy that matters more.

WHATEVER WORKS takes a serious downturn in the second half when the focus drifts from Boris. Melodie's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) turns up at his door looking for her daughter, and later on her father John (Ed Begley Jr.) appears too. Not only do the awakenings of these southern conservatives to New York liberalism feel like Allen at his laziest, but also their arcs are just not that funny, interesting, or developed.

Due in part to the sheer volume of Allen's filmography, WHATEVER WORKS is bound to seem familiar, but he's found a winning formula, even if this film's title suggests a less than fastidious approach to getting it right.

Grade: B-

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