It’s bound to be a minority opinion, but I enjoyed Woody Allen’s newest, “Whatever Works.” I won’t go so far to classify it as A-level Woody Allen, but it’s solidly in the high B range – funny, heartfelt, with hokey jokes and occasionally surprising insights.
I’ll admit it right off the bat: I’m in the tank for Woody Allen.
Not unreservedly. In the past decade, I’ve found some of his films more substantial and meaningful (“Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) than others (“Cassandra’s Dream,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion”).
But I’ll go so far as to say that Woody Allen’s humor was a key in my early (and continuing) idea of what comedy could be – from his early stand-up appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “The Tonight Show” through a movie career of 40 years (and an incredible 40 films). These days, at his best, he can be Chekhovian in his appreciation for the tragic strains of the human comedy – and at his worst, it’s still Woody Allen making with the shtick.
Much has been made of the provenance of this particular screenplay: that Allen wrote the film with Zero Mostel in mind for the central character in the late 1970s – the “Annie Hall”/“Manhattan” period. But when Mostel died in 1977, Allen put it in his drawer – and when he had a window on short notice to make a film last year in New York, he pulled this one out – and had the stroke of casting brilliance to choose Larry David for the Mostel role.
The writing, buffed by Allen to bring it up to date but dealing with remarkably consistent themes 30 years later, is less reflexively jokey than Allen was in the 70s. Still, the old rhythms are hard to shed, particularly when you’ve got David kibitzing on everything around him. His condemnation is a foregone conclusion, as is his dismissal of virtually any variation from his own sense of earthly doom.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a physicist whose main claim to fame is that he was “considered” for a Nobel Prize. Driven mad by a wealthy wife who rejects his perpetual sense of gloom, he tries to kill himself. Instead, he survives, with a limp, and rejects his old life for a crummy Chinatown flat where he can live like a persnickety hermit. He emerges occasionally to commune with a group of fellow intellectuals (including Michael McKean and Conleth Hill), but mostly to disparage women as a species and announce his own retreat from interpersonal relationships with any of their kind.
Then he meets Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a teen-age escapee from the Deep South looking to make her way in the big city. The grouchy Boris finds her sleeping in his alley and reluctantly invites her in to spend a night on the couch that turns into an unlikely friendship and even more unlikely marriage.
There’s a contingent of critics who will dismiss this film as yet another of Woody’s unlikely May-December romances, with David standing in for Allen. But I don’t think that’s his point.
In pairing David and Wood, Allen is telling a story about human susceptibility to affection: that even the most hardened of hearts – belonging to the most dire, dour pessimist – responds to that kind of attention. Love, as impermanent a condition as it might be, is worth the pursuit; Allen is taken with the transformative power of love, despite its inability to forestall the impending end of the universe.
Allen’s fatalist streak informs the structure of his story-telling: half the film devoted to Boris figuring out that Melodie is a good thing for him, the other half to the inevitability that she’ll blossom and dump him for someone else. Pursuit (with its frantic fear of failure) and loss. Nothing in between.
The plotting itself is almost incidental; it doesn’t matter how Melodie meets Perry (John Gallagher Jr.), the man her meddling mother (Patricia Clarkson) uses to pry her away from the inappropriate Boris – you know that she will be tempted.
The writing is less set-up/punchline than simple give and take, with David always unpacking multisyllabic retorts that aren’t necessarily jokes but which are funny nonetheless. The all-purpose misanthrope: a role David was born to play.
David is wonderfully self-assured and outspoken, not that far removed from the Larry David character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He pays no attention to social niceties, rarely working himself beyond a state of neurotic prickliness. Why? Because, well, doom, gloom, pointlessness of existence, etc. Yet David finds the feelings beneath the many defense mechanisms and neuroses.
Wood is a perceptive and resilient young actress. There’s a solidity to her character that reverses the “Pygmalion” vibe of the story – almost as if, in absorbing whatever knowledge Boris has to impart, she teaches Boris a lesson or two about how to gracefully exist in the moment.
Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. (as Melodie’s father and Clarkson’s ex) have broader material to work with and Allen’s shifts to a more antic tone don’t always give them the traction they need. But there are always laughs to be had in unexpected places.
There’s an emotional richness to “Whatever Works” that’s as much a part of its makeup as the one-liners and the innate humor of listening to Larry David kvetch. Give it a chance and you won’t be sorry.