Whatever Works (2009)
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
Run Time: 91 minutes
Vintage Woody Still Amuses in Pursuit of his Fantasy Shiksa
Review by Emily S. Mendel
Woody Allen’s “new” film, Whatever Works, is his 40th, although he wrote it in the 1970s. Allen had Zero Mostel in mind for the lead — that wonderful larger than life actor who starred on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as in the original film version of The Producers. Unfortunately, Mostel died in 1977, and the script was shelved.
As a 1970s film that takes place in Manhattan, Whatever Works is reminiscent of Allen’s much-loved films about relationships in Manhattan in which comedy vies with angst, with a soupçon of Jewish humor. Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) spring to mind.
Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, head writer and executive producer) stars as Boris Yelnikoff, a former physicist who lived at Beekman Place, but in his post-divorce existence, he is an eccentric, misanthropic chess teacher living on the Lower East Side.
One night Boris finds Melody, a young Southerner (Evan Rachel Wood, The Wrestler, 2008) lying on his doorstep. He takes her in for the night and eventually marries her, despite their 40-year age difference and her incredible ignorance and naïveté. His philosophy on the matter is that life is short, so he might as well enjoy himself.
Melody’s parents come into town to “save her,” but instead, get caught up themselves in the artistic and sexual freedom of the Big Apple. Whatever works!
I acknowledge that, as a fan of Woody Allen’s films, I have a positive bias toward Whatever Works. Perhaps I’m nostalgic for my younger days in Manhattan; perhaps it’s my appreciation of Allen’s form of Jewish humor, which goes back to the 1950s and the jokes he wrote for Sid Caesar.
I can imagine Zero Mostel as the lead in Whatever Works. He would have ranted as much as Larry David did, but he had a likeable animated face and body. David never looked comfortable in his role. He acknowledges that he’s not an actor, and it shows.
Yes, Whatever Works could have been more original, been more tightly plotted and better acted. Nevertheless, I laughed aloud at several points during the film, and that’s enough for me.
©Emily S. Mendel 2009 All Rights Reserved
Vintage Woody Allen Looking Worn
Review by Beverly Berning
Larry David as a surrogate Woody Allen might have sounded like a great idea during a conversation over knishes, but Whatever Works loses a lot of its warmth and appeal by casting the abrasive Mr. David in the kind of role that Woody Allen perfected in his 70s movies—the neurotic, lovable nebbish whose existential angst and romantic entanglements endeared us to him because they reminded us of our own fears and longings. Woody made fun of his anxieties, and it helped take the edge off our own. Anyone who went to a Woody Allen movie back in those days was going in part to make themselves feel better, much in the same way Woody himself would go see a Marx Brothers’ movie to make himself feel better.
Now, however, instead of Woody cuddling with Mariel Hemingway while watching an old Marx Brothers’ movie, we have Mr. David, as the misanthropic Boris Yelnikoff, cuddling with Evan Rachel Wood while watching an old Fred Astaire movie. The niggling discomfort of Manhattan was that Woody’s love interest was still in high school; almost four decades later, we have a legal pairing, but the ick factor is exponentially worse. Mr. David is four decades older than Miss Wood. Woody Allen’s perennial fantasy of having sexual and intellectual intercourse with innocent, malleable and beautiful young women never felt quite right, even in Manhattan, but it didn’t seem to matter. Even Woody was torn, and there was Diane Keaton to counterbalance the deviance.
In Whatever Works, however, the fantasy becomes burlesque. Besides the massive age gap, there’s the sheer dimwittedness of Miss Wood’s character. As written by Allen, the character of Melody acts lobotomized. She may have a highly developed sense of compassion and ethics, but there are few brain cells left for cognitive ability. It doesn’t help that Mr. David seems to relish barking insults at her.
Evan Rachel Wood is a strong actress, but she took her role too seriously. If only there were more tongue in that young cheek. Luckily, there is Melody’s mother, played with more seriocomic spirit by Patricia Clarkson, to counterbalance the dumb blonde stereotype. And so, as we kick Woody in the shins, we must also pat him on the back for allowing a middle-aged woman the sexual rejuvenation and deviance that our gender also deserves. If only he had allowed one of her new lovers to be barely twenty.
I am a huge Woody Allen fan, but I too, am getting cranky as I get older. I had a hard time with Whatever Works. Still, I never tire of the message Woody Allen delivers about love—that state of temporary grace that helps us get through our otherwise piddling existence. This is a common Woody Allen theme, but here he seems to be insisting that there be no rules that govern romantic alignments, neither regarding duration or symmetry, or even logic. As the title suggests—whatever works. No matter how catastrophic this latest Woody Allen fantasy is, it’s always worthwhile to keep reminding us of this, even three decades later.: