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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“Whatever Works,” a picture that beneath its willfully crotchety exterior is ultimately about finding love, comes as close to optimism as Woody Allen is capable of getting. But it’s a graft that doesn’t quite take: Allen’s return to New York, after several years of making pictures in Europe, is a belabored trifle that’s occasionally amusing but often just bewildering, beginning with the movie’s intentionally outlandish setup: Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a knobby-kneed, plaid-shorts-wearing, know-it-all New York geezer, grudgingly helps a pretty, coltish young runaway with the shiksa-princess name Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood). Before long, enchanted by his vast wealth of so-called knowledge (he keeps loudly proclaiming that he came close to winning a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics) and his willingness to hold forth even on topics he knows nothing about, she falls in love with him. Somehow, his fossilized views about life and art get her very, very hot.
Or maybe it’s the knobby knees. Regardless, the idea of a sexy-sweet, undereducated teen runaway falling for a charmless curmudgeon like Boris is a fine enough joke in itself, and Allen is certainly in on it: No matter how many lousy movies he’s made in the past 20 years or so, he has enough sense left to see what’s funny about the use of old-fart gasbaggery as a seduction tool. And so it would probably be easy enough to defend “Whatever Works” by noting that Allen is just poking fun at himself, and having a grand old time doing it. David (the much-beloved, if that’s the right word, star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the co-creator of “Seinfeld”) is Allen’s stand-in here, and his deadpan surliness suggests an Allen who’s aware of his own faults and of his own aged geekiness. He knows it’s absurd that a cutie like Melody would fall for a guy like Boris — or like Allen.
Maybe that self-awareness — and Allen is, if nothing else, the most self-aware of filmmakers — is supposed to make “Whatever Works” funnier. But the movie picks its way along in fits and starts. A few gags are lilting and clever, albeit in a silly way, helped along by terrific performers: Patricia Clarkson shows up as Melody’s pert but proper mom, a Mississippi matron in matchy-matchy clothes, who upon her arrival in New York sees how limited her life is and sheds her Junior League ways for a far more eccentric boho lifestyle. And the story’s numerous farcical turns suggest that Allen is at least trying to return to the kind of lighthearted absurdity that has, at times, made him a brilliant comic writer.
But so much of “Whatever Works” is just strained and overexplained. The picture is less aggressively distasteful than some of Allen’s recent so-called comedies (“Melinda and Melinda,” “Anything Else”), less pretentious than his dreary moral exercises (“Cassandra’s Dream,” “Match Point”) and less desperately Euro-sophisticated than his last picture, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” (Although it wasn’t intended to be funny, I still giggle when I think of the way the character played by the gifted English actress Rebecca Hall announced she was getting a degree in “Catalan identity.” Because of the flatness of her faux American accent — she’d obviously been heavily coached in Allen-style diction — I thought her specialty was “cattle and identity.”) But the gag of having a charmless lead character who keeps announcing how charmless he is wears thin very quickly. David’s Boris is certain he knows everything and makes sure no one around him ever forgets it: He holds forth regularly, hanging out with his chums (played by Michael McKean, Lyle Kanouse and Adam Brooks) at this or that neighborhood outdoor cafe, and now and then faces the camera to address us as well: “I’m not a likable guy,” he assures us, and this he quickly proves to be true. He makes money by teaching chess to little kids, though mostly he just loudly berates them for their inferior intelligence. He doesn’t talk to people, he barks at them, often out of the corner of his mouth. His derision for those who don’t match his level of braininess (in other words, 99.9 percent of the population) is as obvious as a bad toupee.
We’re not supposed to like him — at least not in the conventional way of “liking” characters — but we’re nonetheless stuck watching him, and as David plays him, there’s not much there. Everything David does is on the surface, a rehearsed routine; his incessant snarling is supposed to be exaggerated, but it’s still too much like a pose. Wood’s Melody is, at least, an appealing foil for him, and if at first we see her mostly as Boris does — as a gangly, gum-snapping naif — it’s not long before we get an idea of her own unvarnished common sense. Wood, doing less pouting and posturing than usual, is a relaxed, lively presence here, teasing her own kind of logic out of wonderfully ridiculous lines like, “If you throw me out and I end up an Asian prostitute, it’ll be on your conscience!”
But Allen doesn’t get good mileage out of the May-December romance concept. It’s not the difference in age between Boris and Melody that makes their relationship seem unsavory. It’s just that the character of Boris is so resolutely unappealing. You can see why Melody might be impressed by his steady stream of factoids and opinions. But does she actually have an OK time in bed with him? That’s a question Allen never asks or answers, perhaps because he thought it would be in bad taste to do so — and maybe it would be. “Whatever Works” isn’t “about” sex, per se. But you do have to wonder if Allen cares at all what might be going on in the mind of the young woman character he’s written. He seems to care most about his alter ego, Boris, the guy who gets the babe. He sees Boris’s shortcomings and pigheadedness with piercing accuracy. The problem is that he can’t see beyond them.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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