Whatever Works (2009) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, language, brief nudity and adult themes
Running time: 92 min.
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Henry Cavill, Ed Begley Jr., Carolyn McCormick, Michael McKean
Cameo: Samantha Bee
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Review published November 6, 2009
Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop) returns after a half-decade filming in Europe to his roots in New York only to find that Whatever Works mostly doesn't. His wit is still intact, but the lukewarm story never gels into anything interesting, and the direction and handling of the actors feels out of synch for most of the duration. Reportedly, Allen wrote his original script (though he has made contemporary alterations, such as a reference to President Obama) for the film over 30 years ago, in his early 40s. Now in his early 70s, Allen could be accused as outgrowing this brand of humor, and lost his finger on the pulse of what originally had inspired him to create such a quaint observance on the mercurial nature of relationships.
Although originally written with Zero Mostel in mind, it's now Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm", "Seinfeld") that stars as Boris Yellnikoff, a misanthropic retired physics professor who rails against the world in rants that decry love, human kindness, children and pretty much anything else we humans cherish. Enter Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Wood, The Life Before Her Eyes), a young runaway from the South who ends up befriending the cantankerous 60-something, and eventually falls for his genius. He's resistant to any kind of love, especially of someone so young and imbecilic, but as she begins to sponge off of his personality, she grows on him, and the odd couple eventually marry.
It's not the fault of the actors, who individually shine in their respective roles, as to why they don't seem to mesh with one another. Part of it is the curiously off-putting characterizations, in which no two characters talking to one another seem to be engaged in the same conversation, oblivious to what each other are saying. They seem to be playing more for the audience than for themselves . The two protagonists are supposed to have found love, and yet there's never even an inkling of a romance between them on the screen. The actors give it their all nonetheless, with David spewing venom and Wood's ingénue always sweet and daft. Supporting actors Clarkson (Good Night and Good Luck, No Reservations) and Begley (For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind) arrive later in the film as Melody's conservative parents and infuse the film with some energy, even though they are as incongruous as the leads in how they talk to one another.
As has been the custom for Allen's films of late, his involvement has been downplayed in the promotional material, though it is far more an Allen film than it is a Larry David vehicle, so "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fans should, well, curb their enthusiasm. David isn't really suited to Allen's style, which often requires ad-libbing to achieve a more natural result. A writer himself, he's more comfortable with lines he writes for himself, and has trouble acting natural with words not written by him or specifically for him. One can imagine Mostel, one of the stage's funniest, most gifted comedic talents, adding a much more overbearing, rounded performance. Even Allen himself could have pulled off the role without seeming malevolent, much as he did in the very similar (and much better) films Mighty Aphrodite and Manhattan. Larry David mostly comes off as one dimensional, and quite unlikeable, to the detriment of the overall humor.
It's easily Allen's biggest misfire since Anything Else, and outside of new stars for his oeuvre, there isn't anything in the writing you haven't seen from him before. Interesting that both films share similar titles, main characters that break the fourth wall, and ambivalent themes on relationships. With Allen, one might begin to think that ambiguous titles will result in ambivalent delivery. For Allen, coming home to the familiar environs of Manhattan produces familiar returns.
©2009 Vince Leo