Judge Mike Rubino wondered who caught that catfish.
Our review of Whatever Works (Blu-Ray), published October 27th, 2009, is also available.
"Let me tell you right off, I'm not a likable guy. Charm has never been
a priority with me. And just so you know, this is not the feel good movie of the
year. So if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good…go get
yourself a foot massage."
For the Woody Allen fan, Whatever Works sounds like a dream project. Cinema's most neurotic filmmaker teams up with television's most neurotic producer, Larry David, for a comedy set in New York City. Better yet, it's based on a script that Woody wrote back in the '70s, when he was in the thick of his "earlier, funnier movies" period. This movie has to be great, right?
Well, that depends on whatever works for you.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm) sitting at an outdoor cafe with friends, going on about the fallibility of humanity and organized religion. His friends have heard this all before, of course, but the audience hasn't. After much lecturing, Boris gets up from his chair, walks towards the camera, and tells us the story behind his theory of "whatever works."
Boris is a neurotic, pessimistic, shut-in who almost got nominated for a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics. He left his first wife because the relationship was too rational. He wakes up with night sweats just thinking about the universe expanding. He screams at the children who come to him for chess lessons. He has given up on the world. This all changes when Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, The Wrestler), a runaway high school beauty queen from Mississippi, shows up outside of Boris's door.
Through some quark of compassion, Boris decides to take her under his wing. She becomes indoctrinated in Boris's bleak worldview, even if she doesn't really understand what it all means. Then fate knocks on the door in the form of Melody's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona); and then again with Melody's father, John (Ed Begley Jr., Arrested Development). Before Boris can even finish singing "Happy Birthday" twice while washing his hands, these repressed Southerners become submerged in New York bohemia.
Through crazy events and wild strokes of luck, these characters all learn that in order to get through life with the smallest semblance of happiness they just need to hold on to whatever works.
It's been five years since Woody Allen made Melinda and Melinda, his last film in New York City. In that time, he's traveled abroad making award-winners like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. So one would think that Woody's return to the Big Apple would bring about ideas as fresh and interesting as his foreign-made films. Instead, he has created a movie that is extremely familiar. Whatever Works is (optimistically) a return to form and (pessimistically) a regression back to his standard urban-neurotic formula.
Whatever Works is a solipsistic New Yorker's fairy tale in which ignorant, straight-laced red staters are seduced by intellectuals and artists and inverted into whatever it is they fear the most. In this strange world, as described through the fourth-wall-shattering lectures of Larry David's Boris, an Evangelical southern divorcee can easily become a be-scarfed photographer living with two men. Needless to say, the film is extremely cynical and misanthropic towards anyone not of the neurotic-Atheist persuasion. It's Woody Allen's most bitter film since Deconstructing Harry.
Thankfully, Larry David was cast as Boris instead of Woody playing the role himself. Mr. Yellnikoff is so vitriolic and arrogant that only David could pull it off and still come away likable. Allen's pathetically charming, jester-like demeanor isn't dark and hateful enough—and I can't imagine Boris played by Zero Mostel (The Producers), for whom the role was originally written. Larry David is by far the best Woody Allen stand-in the director's used. He delivers most of the jokes with perfect timing ("I'm a man with a huge worldview. I'm surrounded by microbes!"), and he even manages a few heart-to-heart moments. Fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm will find plenty to like here, too. Rather than just do an impression of Woody, as previous actors in this position have done, Larry David turns Boris into an amalgamation of these two great comedians.
The rest of the cast is spot-on as well. Evan Rachel Wood's Melody is an adorably stupid Dixie gal with plenty of heart. For as bitter as Boris can be, Melody is like an oblivious rabbit bouncing merrily along. She transcends much of the close-mindedness of her parents, while managing to be the only real voice of measured, honest moderation in the film. Her transformation from ignorant runaway to Boris's pessimistic sidekick/caretaker to a natural, realistic in-between is paced very well. Melody's parents, played by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr., are over-the-top stereotypes. Clarkson's character has at least a little time to develop, and is great in just about every scene; Begley's gun-loving father, however, comes off as a minor note. Rounding out the cast are reliable performances by Conleth Hill, Michael McKean, and Henry Cavill (The Tudors).
The introduction of these secondary characters, however, makes Whatever Works unbalanced. The first half, in which we see Boris operating in his daily life and then living with Melody, is sharp and funny. I could watch Larry David hobble around with a gimp leg yelling at young chess students all day. But when these secondary characters arrive, adding more conflict and subplots, the film becomes unfocused. Or at least, it no longer focuses on Boris and Melody. While Melody's transformation throughout the film was gradual and layered, her parents flip like a light switch. It's absurdly comical, but laugh-out-loud moments aren't as frequent, and Allen's message becomes as blunt as a 62-year-old man falling on you from a second story window. By the time the ending abruptly arrives (as has been the case with many of his recent films), luck and chance have reared their ugly heads, leaving Boris to wrap things up with a heartfelt monologue. Despite all the negativity and cynicism throughout the movie, this monologue actually leaves us on a surprisingly positive note.
For as great as it is to have Allen back in New York, churning out the kind of reliable comedy that fills half his catalogue, the film rarely takes advantage of its atmosphere. Instead, the characters hang out in the same urban cafes, cramped apartments, and impenetrable art galleries we've seen time and again. The framing is stagey and occasionally flat, and the takes are long and simple. It's a style he's settled into over the years—I style I definitely appreciate—but here, Allen really does seem to be going with whatever works.
The film looks good but not great on this standard def release. The colors are vibrant, but some scenes just feel a little too dark and muddy. Overall, the audio/video gets the job done. Sadly, there are no special features, save for a trailer. While Woody Allen movies never have special features, this film, in particular, had a lot of press surrounding it. It would be nice to at least get some interviews with the cast.
As far as Woody Allen films go, Whatever Works is a good entry that could have been much more. I enjoyed the first half and the very end thoroughly; however, the ongoing complications and neatly resolved problems made the third act feel sloppy.
It was originally intended to be made sometime before or after films like Sleeper and Love and Death, but in making it today Woody uses a style reminiscent of later films like Mighty Aphrodite and Anything Else. It's a film that's flippantly pessimistic and sardonic, but it also holds a lot of the timeless themes and humor found in much of Woody Allen's filmography. For Woody Allen and Larry David fans, this is a must see. For everyone else, it just depends on how much cynicism you can take.
Not guilty, you cretin.
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