A film review by Craig J. Koban November 2, 2009

WHATEVER WORKS jjj

2009, R, 92 mins.

Boris Yellnikoff: Larry David / Melody: Evan Rachel Wood / Marietta: Patricia Clarkson / John: Ed Begley Jr. / Joe: Michael McKean / Randy James: Henry Cavill / Perry: John Gallagher Jr. / Helena: Jessica Hecht / Jessica: Carolyn McCormick / Howard: Christopher Evan Welch

Written and directed by Woody Allen.

WHATEVER WORKS is trying to be a Woody Allen film that returns to the 21-time Oscar nominated filmmaker to his roots: gone are the London and Spanish locales and a wrongheaded muse in Scarlett Johansson (her exclusion being a big plus in my book).  Instead, Allen taps back into his fascination and adoration of The Big Apple, and WHATEVER WORKS represents his first return the enigmatic movie city in five years.  In many ways, Allen-ites will, no doubt, find themselves clamoring at the writer/director to abandon his oversees locales to focus on his native city that served as a catalyst for the truly finest films of his career.  As reinvigorating and exciting as it is to see him revisiting his city-muse, there still remains a somewhat nagging familiarity to WHATEVER WORKS. 

Just how familiar? 

Well, here is a film about an old, deeply neurotic, fiercely independent, and hyper idiosyncratic and smart Jewish know-it-all that manages to let his curmudgeonly guard down when he falls for a far younger, limitlessly spunky, and unattainably attractive girl.  While this Semitic bohemian initially finds that his self-concocted bubble of intellectual privilege apart from the world is threatened by the presence of this ideal woman, he nonetheless finds himself drawn closer to her.  On a similar foot, the light-hearted and bumbling floozy with a heart of gold also finds it difficult to not be won over by the man’s misanthropic charm and humanity-hating charisma.  Oh, and the man in question, like so many Allen creations of yesteryear, often breaks the cinematic fourth wall, looks directly into the audience, and engages in hostile and self-loathing diatribes about how he is an academic and logical god walking among idiotic, philistine insects. 

So…yeah…that familiar. 

WHATEVER WORKS has one irreproachable saving grace: Allen, now in his mid-70’s, has opted to stay out of this Manhattan-centric dramedy as the main protagonist (how utterly implausible would his presence in films like this be now where he once again successfully courts a girl out of his league?) and instead finds a new actor/surrogate in Larry David, who just may be the perfect embodiment of the Allen of old.  A decade Allen’s junior, but just as rancorously obstinate and miserable in his comic delivery, David has been collecting accolades lately for his virtuosos comic performance on HBO’s CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM where he plays…well…himself…and it is the actor’s unrelenting deadpan delivery and chronically defensive posturing that makes him ideal to fill the shoes of the prototypical Allen protagonist.  Both Allen and David also seems to operate within the same artistic mindset: both use New York as a semi-hermetic backdrop – and source, it seems – of all of their frustrations, and both seem to lean towards the same philosophical ideologies.  I guess if the thought of Allen appearing yet again playing the type of role that made him an icon in American cinema is a pill too hard to swallow today, then David seems like the most obvious replacement.  The blending of the two seems like a recipe for easy success. 

 

 

The film opens brilliantly: Boris Yellnikoff (David) is a retired nuclear physicist that was almost nominated for a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, which he wears with a prima dona badge of selfish honor.  Despite his 200-plus IQ, Boris is by no means a perfect man: he allowed himself to divorce a woman that was his intellectual and social equal, but for some reason he became so emotionally suffocate within the relationship that he tried to commit suicide.  He now resides near Chinatown in a fairly crummy and ramshackle apartment where he spends most of his time teaching chess to children (but with the hilarious verbal aggression of a prison guard) and he spends ever more of his time lecturing down to all of his friends.   

Whoops.  I almost forgot about the opening sequence.  We see Boris engage in lengthy arguments with his buddies when he suddenly acknowledges us – the movie audience – much to the shock and confusion of his friends (they see nothing).  Boris gets up from his table, walks right up to the camera, and in a self-congratulatory monologue of stoic narcissism, he pontificates on his own misunderstood genius and how he is burdened to live in a world surrounded by simpletons and “submental cretins.”  Boris is infatuated with himself, but despises everyone else.  To him, the idiots that he unavoidably finds himself in contact with everyday inconvenience him.  After relinquishing his angry rant, Boris nonchalantly informs the audience that this film will not be a happy-go-lucky romp and that he, as the main character, is the furthest thing from a nice, decent guy.  In short, his monologue is a warning to viewers: he’s a jerk and he knows it and there’s nothing that can be done to change that. 

Yes…but…within Allen’s recognizable film universe there is an obligatory spark that will enter Boris’ life and irrecoverably change it.  Into Boris’ Alvy Singer-esque bubble of moral outrage and despair enters an angel of sorts in the form of Melody St. Ann Celestine (an never-more-beautiful and lively Evan Rachel Wood, in a refreshingly feisty and jovial performance coming off of her somber, but great, turn in THE WRESTLER).  Melody is an absolute beacon of positive energy in the grumpy Jew’s life: she deflects all sorts of negativity that has entered her life – including her own lifestyle as a bum living in the streets – and, even when she fails at finding words to describe her sentiments (she’s a bit of an air head, but not obnoxiously so), this former Dixie queen’s youthful verve and infectious buoyancy seems like the best cure for Boris’ toxic lifestyle.   

Despite the 40-year age gap between the pair – and the fact that she is incredibly attractive and just slightly above jailbait age – Boris reluctantly agrees to let her in to stay with him for a while.  Although he never fails to take an opportunity – whether directly in front of her or to his friends – to describe just how annoying and stupid she is to him, Boris cannot deny the fact that he is becoming more drawn to her and she to him.  Unavoidably, the pair eventually marry and begin to live a very peculiar marriage existence, but their happiness is thrown off balance with the arrival of Melody’s semi-estranged and superlatively religious mother, Marietta (a wonderful Patricia Clarkson) and later her father, John (Ed Begley Jr.), who is having his own…shall we say…identity crisis.  Begley Jr. is also a part of the film's single most uproarious dialgue exchange, which occurs during a moment in a bar where he argues with a gay man.  "God is not gay.  He created everything in the earth and heavens, " to which the other patron wryly responds, "Yeah, he was a decorator.".   

I would not think to spoil what happens next, but one surprising element of WHATEVER IT TAKES is with the trajectory of Clarkson’s character, who goes from a one-dimensional, caricature of a Christian-zealot mother and then abruptly changes to a completely reaffirmed persona once she has let the lifestyle of New York get a hold of her.  Even though she completely re-establishes her entire image the longer she stays in the city, she nevertheless still tries to find ways to sabotage her daughter’s relationship with a man that she thinks is beneath ideal for him.  There is a subplot involving her trying to manipulate a young and handsome suitor (played rather blandly by Henry Cavill) to intervene on Melody’s behalf to save her from Boris, which feels substantially more artificial and manufactured than it should.  However, Clarkson is a comic firecracker here, showing a hilarious resilience when it comes to going to any length to rescue her daughter from what she thinks is a polluted and corrupt marriage. 

Of course, then there are also David and Wood, who develop such an ethereal and unstrained chemistry in the film, despite their vast age and personality differences.  I liked how Boris, a livelong miserable SOB and misogynist, is so insidiously nasty to Melody so often that the hilarity of the film often resides with how she – a free spirit of boundless, giddy energy and toddler-like enthusiasm – just casually brushes it off.  She is hollow-minded and innocuous enough to be blinded by the greatness of the man, adhering to just about everything he says, which is arguably why Boris becomes easily attached to her.  Their relationship, though, does not grow into a stale repetition of TV sitcom clichés: look at one late moment in the film where the pair have a heart-to-heart and painfully frank discussion about why their relationship is, under most circumstances, doomed for failure from the beginning.  It's a surprisingly sweet, tender, and honest moment played with a pitch perfect timbre by both actors.

However enriching the performances and amusingly scathing some of the dialogue exchanges are (I would still rather listen to Allen borrow and rip off himself by having his character’s speak colorfully and articulately than slum through mundane and perfunctory dialogue exchanges that dominate modern films), there is no denying that WHATEVER IT WORKS stumbles its way through material that Allen perfected in the decades past.  The overall ending of the film (which is far too neat and tidy for its own good) – as well as the film’s irksomely rosy message that “in order to be happy, do whatever works” seems disingenuous to the unreceptive nature of some of the characters.  Yet, Allen is clearly an auteur that is far removed from his prime (his last great film was 1996’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, and his landmark and cherished classics like ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, and HANNA AND HER SISTERS feel like there have become even more distant than before.  Still, WHATEVER WORKS occupies a middle spectrum for Allen; it is neither indicative of his finest efforts (few from now on shall achieve such glory), nor is it representative of his weakest labors.    Like his previous film, VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, WHATEVER IT WORKS emerges as a highly agreeable diversion that will leave fans of both Allen and David in a state of giddy bliss.  Even if the material seems horribly antiquated (the script was originally written in the 1970’s for Zero Mostel), sometimes whatever past glory that Allen reaches back for works.

  H O M E