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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > Whatever Works

MOVIE REVIEWS

WHATEVER WORKS (2009)

Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Henry Cavill, Ed Begley Jr., Adam Brooks, Lyle Kanouse, Michael McKean, Carolyn McCormick, Christopher Evan Welch, Conleth Hill, John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Hecht.

Screenplay by Woody Allen.

Directed by Woody Allen.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  92 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

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Whatever Works

In Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, the filmmaker does a scene where he plays a director, much like himself at the time, who has been segueing from comedy to dramatic films.  When he agrees to go to a film festival, a whole series of people tell him they love his earlier, funny movies.

It's been a long time since people have preferred Allen's comedies.

In the decades since that film, Allen's dramatic work has gained most of his recent acclaim (i.e. Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), while his comic work has seemed more and more out of touch.  Some people might consider last year's successful Vicky Cristina Barcelona to be a comedy, but I and most people consider it to be a drama with some very funny parts - as most good serious Allen films.  At the same time, his comedies always have moments of great pathos and importance.

Whatever Works - though far from a perfect film - is his best mostly-comic work since Mighty Aphrodite in 1996.

That said, it will never make anyone forget past classics like Annie Hall or Love & Death

Whatever Works is from an Allen script that has been in a drawer for years - he had originally written it as a starring vehicle for the late Zero Mostel - and though it has been polished and modernized, some of it still feels a bit dated. 

However, this is an important film if for no other reason than the fact that after a few year flirtation with Europe, finally Woody is filming in his native New York again.

Whatever Works mainly works due to a very strong central performance by comic-turned-TV-star Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), who brings just the right crotchety vibe to the character of Boris Yellnikoff.  Boris is a former scientist (he nearly won a Nobel Prize in quantum physics) who is also completely jaded, bitter, antisocial, panicked and occasionally suicidal. 

Actually calling David's work a performance may be a bit off-base.  David is not a strong actor per se - the few highly emotional scenes seem a little beyond his talents and the celebrated ad-libber occasionally seems to be struggling to recall Allen's dense monologues - however, he has found a niche playing smart, testy, rather nasty Jewish guys and David fits this role like a glove.

Boris' life changes when he meets Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a homeless southern former beauty pageant contestant who is squatting outside of his loft.  (Yeah, that's a common problem, you can't cross a street in New York without tripping over a destitute beauty queen.)  Against his better judgment, she talks him into letting stay the night in his apartment and she never leaves.

Unfortunately, the character of Melodie is the weak link here.  Wood does her best, but her character is written to be a little too stupid for comfort.  She is hard to believe from the very beginning - and then she starts to find herself attracted to Boris, despite the fact that he is over twice her age, balding, crotchety, depressive, not rich and treats her like crap.  It's not a new complaint that Woody Allen often has younger women fall for his older male heroes - this goes back to Manhattan thirty years ago - but you don't believe for a second that a sweet-natured girl like Melodie would put up with this bitter old guy.

Things pick up when her separated Bible-belt parents arrive in New York, played by the always interesting Patricia Clarkson and the underrated Ed Begley, Jr.  The parents have broken up because of his affair and both are horrified to find their daughter married to a man their age, but eventually they both are seduced to a whole new lifestyle in New York.  Mom also tries to hook up her daughter with a more age-appropriate love (Henry Cavill).  It's funny, if somewhat unrealistic stuff.

While I generally agree with Woody's political viewpoints, some of his conclusions here - even though they are supposed to be comically exaggerated - still seem awfully broad.  For example, it's a little simplistic to suggest that if a seriously religious Bible-belt couple just experiences the life and art of New York City they will give up all of the beliefs and inhibitions that they held for so many years and she will embrace sex (moving in with two men) and he will come out of the closet.  It's just this kind of dismissive viewpoint - who needs religious beliefs when you can have art, culture and sex? - that leads the red-staters to listen to the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly about not trusting the New York intellectual elite.

However that's taking the movie much more seriously than Allen intended.  Besides, let's face it, how many people who would be offended by that kind of characterization are going to see Whatever Works, anyway?

The people who do see it will be Woody Allen's fans and David's new converts from Curb.  For them, Whatever Works is a nice-but-imperfect return to form for one of the great comic minds of our lifetime.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright 2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 19, 2009.

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Copyright 2009   PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 19, 2009.