Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen)
Typically I don’t miss a Woody Allen movie in the theater if I can help it, but I admit I wasn’t too sorry that I was caught in a lapse of attention-paying when Whatever Works had its weeklong run here in Wilmington; I’d been looking forward to seeing it but was also more apprehensive than I’d been toward one of his films in a long time. That’s because of nothing more or less than my irrational distaste for Larry David — as a writer and (much more so) a personality, springing somewhat from my belief that Seinfeld is one of the most overrated TV shows in history and Curb Your Enthusiasm one of the most painful. Folks tend to think I hate Curb because it’s uncomfortable and queasy, but honestly it’s because David himself is such a terrible actor I can’t tolerate it. The acting problem was what tripped me up, because even if Allen’s script was phenomenal, there was the knowledge that I’d be watching David fawn and showboat and pontificate his way through it. Can a film by one of my favorite living directors conquer my outlandish hatred of an actor?
Answer: sorta. Whatever Works is the weakest Woody Allen film since… I can’t say exactly when, I’ve so far dodged his malinged 1998-2003 period and can’t attest to any of those efforts but can say with confidence that this is the most ambivalent I’ve been about the group that’s followed that lapse, starting with the fine Melinda and Melinda. But it’s not a bad film by any means and is a surprisingly winning feel-gooder, at least in the Allen sense wherein a feel-good film is greatly concerned with hatred and prejudice and death and the pointlessness of everything. There’s some vigor, even, to David’s own performance as an obvious stand-in for what would some years ago have been a performance by the director himself (even though he alleges the film to be a revision of a script he wrote in the ’70s for Zero Mostel)… however, even by the standards of Allen’s recent comedies, it’s all rather lightweight.
But not for lack of trying. David’s character, Boris, is one dark and pessimistic son of a bitch who attempts suicide twice in the course of the narrative; he loves to expound about what a rotten, hateful, sexually repressed world we live in — but he of course espouses plenty of hatred himself (while teaching kids to play chess, in the most amusing running gag here) and claims to hate sex. That is, until he meets Tennessee Williams escapee Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a southern runaway attempting to make a life for herself who takes a liking to Boris, even absorbs some of his misanthropy. After a round of skepticism, they marry — but matters grow complicated when Melodie’s parents individually follow her to New York and are each taken aback by her new lifestyle and especially by Boris himself. These stoic Red Staters can’t stand the way that the east coast has sabotaged their daughter, and her mother in particular has other ideas about her marital future. As it turns out, Melodie really is too young to fall into the trap of all-encompassing curmudgeoning just yet, and she falls for a younger prettier dude, gently leaving Boris in a surprisingly affecting sequence that sees him still in denial of his own emotions — the most heartfelt bit of acting we get from David, even as he rolls out the insults. And don’t worry too much about him; he finds another love by falling on someone while trying to jump out his window to die.
Autobiography or not, Whatever Works is the first “classical” Woody Allen movie in some time, which makes his claims of the screenplay’s age somewhat believable; it looks and feels like the sort of movie he was making as a considerably younger man, and while the frantic nature of his comedy hasn’t worn as well as you might hope, he’s still very funny — and there’s considerable relief in how much better he’s gotten at characterizing women since the ’70s, likely a consequence of his long working relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Indeed, if there’s a great deeper value to Whatever Works it’s in its gentle, knowing characterization of Melodie — a kind-hearted, well-meaning normal who questions the myopic nature of her upbringing, and whose outlook is altered permanently by her first serious relationship, an entirely believable detail familiar to anyone and seldom captured so well.
You might also think of it, to an even greater degree than Allen’s output in general, as a gentle but pointed socially liberal screed: both of the hardened conservative parents of Melodie, Patricia Clarkson as her fretful Gone with the Wind-derived mother Marietta and the wonderful Ed Begley Jr. as her stuffed-shirt dad, are given a comeuppance of true love that teaches them everything they know about the world is wrong, a subversive yet cheerful attack on their beliefs. Begley’s John lays down his defenses against the homosexual menace to learn that he is himself, in fact, a gay man; and Marietta exits her growling about the dark forces of the big city to become a bohemian artist involved in a polyamorous relationship with two men! And as the film closes, both are nonchalantly overjoyed with their new lives, their old selves virtually dead. Ridiculous, perhaps, but bold and amusing in its fashion.
Speaking of ridiculous, it would be nice if Allen would break that old rule of never watching his own movies long enough to realize when he’s blatantly repeating himself. This is the second film of his in a row that involves someone becoming a gifted photographer seemingly out of nowhere, and the second in three years to feature a key scene in a houseboat; at least, with the brutally funny and clichéd “tour” of NYC’s most famous monuments, places in which Woody Allen has never in his life shot scenes before this, the director can answer to some extent the accusations that he approaches London, Paris, and Barcelona in his recent foreign projects as a tourist rather than a knowing observer. Indeed, the shots of the Statue of Liberty and the UN building could be his cleverest response to critics since the days of “older funnier” and Deconstructing Harry.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, as there is with every Woody Allen picture — but it’s certainly a minor effort and is bound to play best for those with a high tolerance for Larry David. Skip it and you miss some solid jokes and great Clarkson and Begley performances, but this really isn’t one of those Woody Allen pictures that’s capable of making you Believe again… not that he hasn’t made plenty of those this past decade. But forget all that. Instructions for Woody Allen fans: relax, laugh, have a blast.