With a filmography of more than forty films made over the course of four decades, Woody Allen is an undeniable cinematic institution. He can be counted on to make a film every single year and even when they fail they tend to be pretty watchable. His newest film, Whatever Works, would certainly fall into that camp of “watchable failure,” but as far as that caliber of Allen goes this one is particularly poor. The problem, reportedly, is that this script was actually written in the late seventies as a vehicle for Zero Mostel but was set aside after that actor’s death. The script was pulled out of a drawer as Allen was facing a purposed actor’s strike that would have threatened his film a year pace.
The story concerns Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David), a former physics professor who’s recently gone through a divorce. He’s your typical stand in for Allen himself and his apathetic outlook and neurotic habits will be very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Woody Allen movie before. One day Yelnikoff meets a 21 year old runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) on the streets of New York who he takes in for the night. Melodie was a southern belle from a Christian conservative family and she ran to New York looking for success. Of course the personalities of the two clash, but Melodie tries to relate to this older, pessimistic, intellectual and eventually opposites attract and they up and get hitched. It seems like it’s working out pretty well, but then Melodie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and then father (Ed Begley Jr.) show up, and they are not big fans of Mr. Yelnikoff.
Probably the biggest problem with the movie is that Melodie (and most of the other characters to some extent) are stereotypes. I get the feeling that Woody Allen doesn’t spend to much time talking with anyone outside of bohemian circles in New York, London, and maybe Spain, and his insights into southern conservatives are lacking. These feel less like real people than someone’s outside perception of what “those people” are going to be like. Allen almost gets away with this because the New York characters are in many ways just as close to being caricatures as the southern ones, and there’s also a running theme of mutual misunderstanding among all parties involved, but the whole thing just generally feels pretty far from the cutting edge of culture wars satire.
Worse than all that, the Boris Yelnikoff character is really poorly brought to life. The whole character feels identical to numerous other Woody Allen protagonists in the past both in attitude and in actions. His relationship hang-ups are familiar and tired, and his personality adds nothing new to the table either, he’s the same kind of cynical neurotic that Allen has been writing for years. Of course the character might have been salvaged if Allen had either personally delivered an inspired performance or if he had cast an appropriate surrogate in the role. Instead he cast Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld who’s excellently played himself on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. This seemed good on paper, David is a similarly neurotic Jewish comedian who’s long been called “the west coast Woody Allen,” but if anything this film proves that David is a writer first and a performer second. Sure, he has a shtick that has served him well on one show, but he seems incapable of doing anything else. Here he’s speaking and behaving exactly like he does on TV and he isn’t bringing anything to the material.
Some of the supporting cast comes off a little better, particularly Patricia Clarkson, who seems to be having a lot of fun playing a pretty over the top character who goes through a similarly over the top transformation over the course of the film. Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Begley Jr. also do the best they can with this thoroughly lazy and pedestrian material, but there’s only so much that either of them can do. Ultimately this is pretty clearly a film that Allen churned out to maintain his movie a year pace, and while it isn’t a complete disaster, it definitely isn’t something to be watched by anyone who isn’t a Woody Allen die hard.
** out of Four