Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson and Michael McKean
Goes well with: Manhattan, Lost in Translation, Grumpy Old Men
In recent years, Woody Allen has made his movies on the other side of the Atlantic. That's been a good thing. Let's face it, time spent in Europe can be creatively inspiring, and Woody's movies—Cassandra's Dream, Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona among them—have been far more interesting than what he'd been up to stateside. But all good trips must eventually end, and Allen has returned to his N.Y.C. stomping grounds for his latest project, Whatever Works, which stars Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm. You'd think a one-two punch like Woody and Larry would be a comedic knockout. Sadly, you'll have to—and, please, excuse this quip—curb your enthusiasm for this one.
It's not that Whatever Works doesn't work; it's just that there's very little going on that can actually work in first place. The script was originally written back in the 1970s for Zero Mostel and was recently dusted off and updated for David. And, yeah, it feels that way, like an old idea revisited, or, more accurately, like an old Woody Allen movie with a facelift (yes, once again, the hot young thing falls for the crotchety old guy). David is Boris Yellnikov, an acerbic curmudgeon who was once almost nominated for a Nobel Prize. He's been unsuccessful in both love and death—his marriage was a failure, and so was his suicide attempt. He hates everybody and lives his life by the tenuous philosophy of going with whatever works. Yes, he's one of those dudes who has 20-20 vision while the rest of us wear bifocals. In short, he's playing the Woody Allen part and is, therefore, smarter than everyone and more than happy to let us know it.
Boris' tune changes—slightly—when he allows Melodie St. Ann Celestine, a runaway Southern waif, into his apartment. That's Evan Rachel Wood in the Soon-Yi role, and she's easily the best thing in the film. She's naïve and gorgeous and immediately takes a liking to Boris, who quickly fills her young, empty head with theoretical contempt for the world. Now, Melodie doesn't necessarily believe all that, but she parrots Boris because she thinks he's a genius. It isn't long before she's fallen for him. Hey, people, it's a Woody Allen movie. Whatever works.
Just when the movie seems to have nowhere left to go, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), Melodie's mother, arrives, having split from her husband. Naturally, she's horrified to discover her lovely young daughter hitched to the human black hole of happiness. She's scheming to split them up, even as she starts to learn that her way of life—God and family values—can't compare with the awesomeness that is New York. Soon, Melodie's dad (Ed Begley Jr.) is in the picture and learns precisely the same lessons. Yes, Woody knows his audience, and they certainly don't live in flyover states.
Though it has its fun moments, the problems with Whatever Works lie in whatever Allen's trying to accomplish. The most important point seems to be that the world is a wretched, horrific place, so if you can grasp a little love while you're here, by all means, do so. Sure, that's a nugget of pop philosophy I can get behind, but it's hard to take seriously when Allen's disdain for anyone who isn't creative, artistic and living in New York is on full display. Also, it has to be said that David, who is terrific in Curb Your Enthusiasm, doesn't have a lot of experience playing someone other than—well, Larry David. And it shows. His Boris has his moments, but the bitterness and general nastiness soon turn from entertaining to boorish.
Go ahead, filch some happiness while you're kicking, but don't be surprised if it's hard to find in Whatever Works, which feels as though Allen slapped it together, edited it overnight and then said to himself, “Hey, that's good enough.” Sure. Whatever works.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.