24 November 2009 | Movie_Muse_Reviews
A trip back to vintage '70s Woody Allen that's almost convincing
For those wondering what happened to the old Woody Allen, here he is. "Whatever Works" is a script from the 1970s. I noticed that without even knowing Allen has been forthright about it. A few script rewrites -- talk about the Taliban and not the Communists -- and old Woody works in a modern context. Then again, "Whatever Works" is not a film that anyone will herald the second coming of great Woody Allen comedy, but it is one that will win over a handful of audience members.
"Whatever Works" is pure vintage Woody. Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is a cynical, neurotic and suicidal man that Allen would've played himself in 1977 had he been old enough. He's an elitist intellectual jerk who loves classical music and literature and spews life philosophy. He is a Harvard grad physicist-turned-chess-teacher who considers himself a genius and everyone else a peon. He delivers an opening monologue. He and the characters in this film go to the movies, reference movies and attend art gallery showcases -- and it takes place in New York. This is the comfort food of Woody Allen movies.
If one considers the film's title a mantra, then Allen must've applied it in casting Larry David. David ... works. He's got only a few gears as an actor and we've seen plenty of his main gear on HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." We get lots more of it here, only Boris spouts some of Woody's wittiest lines and insults of all time. It's great, but it comes with the price that Boris is a jerk and his thoughts about life -- we only grow closer to death, love is a waste of time, there's all this crap to worry about -- make him overbearing. It's to Allen's point, but it's difficult to listen to Boris at times.
In a twist of Allen's love for cosmic coincidence, Boris meets a 21-year-old runaway Southern girl named Melodie St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) who he takes in and via foot in the door, ends up letting stay. She's a completely naive and uneducated stereotype, the complete opposite of Boris and all Woody prototypes (with great purpose, however). Mistaking his crafty insults and fatalistic world view for great intelligence, Melodie develops a crush on him and Boris, with his "take what you can get/enjoy what you have" mentality, agrees to marry her. All manages to work until Melodie's mother (Patricia Clarkson) finds her in New York and her traditional views act as a major countering force to their relationship.
Allen's crafty little concoction about not being able to plan for life and love and all its overwhelming negatives that can pop up at any moment is nearly charming. Truthfully, it's a bit sophomoric for his capability level in terms of comedy. The Southern stereotyping, random sharp turn of events and his choice to break the fourth wall (in a film no less) might all be leading somewhere, but it's nothing you totally bite on. The situations are funny and interesting but not believable or sophisticated enough to convince you to start popping Allen's philosophy pills.
"Whatever Works" is neo-classical Woody Allen. It's like asking your mother to cook you something she always made when you were a kid only it's 40 years later and not all the same ingredients are present and she uses some different and not as sophisticated ones as a replacement. In other words not quite what it used to be, but it's still pleasantly palatable and it takes you back in a positive way.
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