Whatever Works (United States/France, 2009)

June 19, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Whatever Works Poster

Some might wonder why it has taken so long for comedic icons Woody Allen and Larry David to work together. Their brands of humor - relying more on wit than stupidity - are similar and both inhabit the same geographical and philosophical orbits. Although their first collaboration, Allen's Whatever Works, is perhaps not as blisteringly funny as some might expect, it is nevertheless the filmmaker's best feature since Match Point and his most effective pure comedy in a dozen years. (One wonders whether the fact that the screenplay was written in the '70s might have something to do with that.) These days, it's hard to say what represents Allen in top form, but this is a considerable upgrade over some of the lows to which he has sunk over the last decade-or-so.

Whatever Works opens brilliantly, with Boris Yellnikov (Larry David) breaking the fourth wall (a familiar Allen technique) as he addresses the camera to begin his narrative. This isn't an aside; he's doing it in the middle of a New York City sidewalk in full view of others. Boris' friends think he has lost it, especially when he explains that they're in a movie being watched by thousands of people in theaters. The joke is reprised on several occasions throughout the film but it is never as effective as the first time. Something like this can get stale pretty quickly.

Boris, a curmudgeon of the first order and the kind of guy who makes Scrooge seem like a philanthropist, bluntly informs the audience that he's "not a likeable guy" and this isn't going to be a feel-good movie. That, of course, is Allen-speak for exactly the opposite. Boris goes out of the way to present himself as a misanthrope, showing little patience for anyone, bad-mouthing children, and insulting even the most inoffensive individuals who cross his path. His nastiness is so over-the-top that it's amusing, especially when delivered in David's singular, deadpan style. In addition to being an unpleasant human being, Boris is also a brilliant physicist (he constantly refers to himself as one of the smartest people in the world, having "almost" been nominated for a Nobel Prize) with suicidal impulses. His one serious attempt at killing himself - hurling himself out a window - was foiled by an ill-placed awning.

One day, Boris meets Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), an innocent girl from Mississippi who is lost in New York and looking for a bite to eat and a place to stay. Despite his gruff exterior and unyielding heart, Boris admits Melody into his home and she soon worms herself into his life. He complains incessantly about her to his friends but it's clear he is becoming attached to her and, after spending a few months together, the two marry, the 40+ year age gap seemingly not being much of an issue until, the separate arrivals in New York of Melody's hyper-religious mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), and father, John (Ed Begley Jr.).

This is the first movie Allen has made in his native New York in five years, and the separation, during which he worked in London and Spain, has reinvigorated his work. The blandness of his last few U.S.-based films is gone, replaced by a liveliness and sense of spirit. Whatever Works is also pure farce - it does not double as social commentary (despite some barbs about religion) and, as has become Allen's style, there are times when elements of the screenplay stray close to his personal life. The central relationship - a 21-year old hooking up with a 62-year old - is hardly new to Allen's work, although this is by far the most extreme age difference. Typically, Allen goes for May/September romances, not May/December ones.

David is able to give Allen's lines voice without losing his individuality in the process. He doesn't go as far as Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity, in which the British actor openly parodied his director, but there are times when David speaks that it's impossible not to hear Allen. David retains his prickly personality, which is perfect for the role, and he doesn't carry Allen's "creepy" baggage. This is a part the 74-year-old Allen never could have pulled off, but it works with a surrogate.

Evan Rachel Wood's makeover has turned her into an Anna Paquin True Blood lookalike. Paquin is five years older than Wood but, with both sporting blonde hair and employing southern accents, the similarities are hard to ignore. One can be forgiven for looking around for vampires. The supporting cast features Patricia Clarkson in a return engagement for Allen (following Vicky Christina Barcelona) and Ed Begley Jr., who is no stranger to comedy (he's a Christopher Guest regular and has made a number of humorous TV appearances). Allen's most recent muse, Scarlett Johansson (who appeared in three of his four non-Stateside pictures) is nowhere to be found.

Whatever Works is uneven. It sparkles when David is on screen but loses steam during an extended segment that focuses on Melody's affair with a man her age (played by Henry Cavill). Other than that, the film delivers what one hopes for from the lighter version of Allen: amusing dialogue filled with nicely-honed barbs uttered by actors who understand how to deliver this sort of thing for maximum effectiveness. It's a slight-but-enjoyable effort, and it features something a little on the surprising side: an optimistic ending. For his next picture, Allen returns to London. Hopefully, the continuing changes in scenery will fuel his creativity. Whatever Works is an agreeable diversion but it's far from the best Allen has delivered.

Whatever Works (United States/France, 2009)

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Henry Cavill
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Harris Savides
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1