“Whatever Works”

Woody Allen and Larry David return to New York, bringing their crotchety self-mockery with them

Topics: Movies,

"Whatever Works"

“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.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>