Larry David in Whatever Works, Works

Movie Review: Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works”

Whatever Works is Woody Allens best film in more than a decade. Echoes of Manhattan, Annie Hall and Broadway Danny Rose will lure back the US fans who deserted Allen in the last decade as the writer/director left New York (in his movies) for Paris, London and Barcelona. The story of an aging Jewish misfit meeting a youthful beauty takes much from Allens Annie Hall template.

Woody Allens latest film was shot in Manhattan after years of cinematic exile. He never moved from Manhattan. He just hadnt shot a film there in a while before this one. It unravels a failed physicists limping journey from misanthropy to attempted suicide to acceptance of the worlds many flaws.

With Larry David as a cantankerous crank for whom the glass is always half-empty, Allens homecoming throws welcome twists onto the directors longstanding reflections on the sexual and the satirical. Caustic and oddly humane, Whatever Works is Allens best film in more than a decade. Larry David as the curmudgeon Boris Yellnikoff – a Woody Allen on steroids – is sure to bring his huge domestic audience to the film. If Evan Rachel Wood delivers the younger public, Allen could have a serious hit on his hands internationally.

Note that he was already on the way to winning back his American public with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which earned $23m in the US and $70m abroad.

“Whatever works” is Yellnikoffs catch-all motto. He has lost faith in moral codes and moved down-market since failing at his marriage, his academic career teaching physics at Columbia, and a subsequent suicide attempt. (He lands on a canopy, and ends up with nothing more than a limp, for which he blames his doctor. Vintage Allen.)

Returning one night to his squalid walk-up after teaching chess to children, whom he despises, Boris finds runaway Melody from Mississippi (Wood), who begs him for food and a bed. Yellnikoff lectures her on the worlds injustices, and she ends up falling for the foul-mouthed curmudgeon. Soon they marry – and then come the parents. True to form for Allen, the supporting cast broadens the comedy, turning an odd folie a deux into a farcical culture war. As Melodys dopey mother, the libidinal Marietta, Patricia Clarkson shakes off Southern Christianity (another favorite target for Allen) once shes had enough wine. Soon shes enough of a New Yorker to bed multiple lovers and have an art exhibition, showing (what else?) nude photo-collages. Melodys father (Ed Begley, Jr.) also sheds his inhibitions on contact with Manhattan. Handsome actor Randy James (Henry Cavill) ensures that Boris and Melodys love wont last forever.

Allen wrote young inexperienced American female characters into his recent European films, but he hasnt had an acerbic talk-aholic New Yorker like Boris to exploit for years. He stockpiled a wealth of zingers for the occasion. When Melody suggests seeing a movie, Boris replies “If you need to feel good, go get a foot massage.” Kurtz of Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness was lucky, Boris declares. “(He) didnt have the Times delivered in the jungle.” When mother and daughter head off for some “fun,” he rips”how about the Holocaust Museum?”

Whatever Works transcends perennial Allen neurotic-nerd formulas thanks to David, who is taller, balder and more foul-mouthed than the schlemiel characters that Allen tends to play. Spitting out his lines, David mines a deeper nastiness here than the everyday bile of his autobiographical character on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Allens dialogue is just as clever for Melody, who wonders innocently if Boris almost got the Nobel Prize for Best Picture. Evan Rachel Wood is near-perfect as the credulous Southern girl, too innocent to feel Boriss barbs. Like Mariel Hemingway, who played Allens teenage girlfriend in Manhattan, Woods sweetness is irresistibly credible.

Close-ups of Wood by director of photography Harris Savides are delicately radiant, exceptional in a film that rarely allows cinema to get in the way of comedy. A lot of Whatever Works has a sitcom look, perhaps because the street lyricism of New York that Allen brought to his earlier films isnt there. The buildings and familiar places have fallen under the developers wrecking ball.

One departure from earlier Allen films that use New York as a backdrop is the complete absence of glamour or nostalgia, although DP Savides and production designer Santo Loquasto do get the dull street vernacular right. The recognizable Manhattan locations are a knish place on the lower East Side and the shopping streets of Chinatown, a far cry from the rhapsodic sequences of skylines and parks in Manhattan.  You can thank New York real estate greed for that.

Davids apartment is a shabby refuge (created at Kaufman Studios in Queens.) It disgusts even Mississippians, and looks more like an homage to Ralph Kramdens flat in The Honeymooners than anything you would actually see in New York. However unrealistic, you still wouldnt associate it with anyplace else. For Allen, even in his imagination, theres still no place like home. Woody Allen affirming the theme of The Wizard of Oz? What a thought.

Movie still from Woody Allens “Whatever Works”.
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