WHATEVER WORKS: The Film Babble Blog Review

WHATEVER WORKS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2009)


Allen’s follow-up to last year’s return to form, the luscious VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, is being dismissed by a number of critics as a flimsy throwaway but I found it to be a funny, touching and overall winning, uh, throwaway. The pairing of loud ornery curmudgeon Larry David with the quiet whimpering wit of Woody Allen works here as well as it does on paper; David’s persona perfectly fits into Allen’s familiar fastidious world. Sure, many well worn clichés abound – many used by Allen before like the old cranky genius mentoring a young beautiful woman (see Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) and the round table of wise cracking chums that the story is relayed to (see BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and MELINDA AND MELINDA) – but as David says at one point: “Sometimes a cliché is the best way to make your point.”

In Allen’s first New York set film in 5 years, David plays a divorced suicidal almost Nobel Prize nominee named Boris Yellnikoff who spends his days teaching chess to children that he calls “inch worms”. Despite confusion from his friends (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks, and Lyle Kanouse) and other passerbys he addresses the camera much like Allen did in ANNIE HALL to tell us things like “this is not the feel good movie of the year” and “I’m not a likable guy – charm is not a priority with me.” In the alley near his apartment (an impossibly spacious loft space like most NYC dwellings in the movies) he meets a runaway Southern girl (Evan Rachel Wood) who before long becomes his room mate and then, it’s no spolier to say, his wife.

The May/December romance is, of course, another patented Allen narrative but, hey – you write what you know! The premise of back woods folks having their horizons broadened by the mixing pot culture of New York is furthered with the appearance of Wood’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) who come separately searching for their daughter. Clarkson, who does the Southern belle bit much better than Wood, is particularly repulsed by David so she schemes to break up the monumentally mis-matched couple. The folks from the sticks have their Christianity threatened by the spoils of the big city, giving Allen another comic atheist platform for lines like: “Why do all the religous psychotics wind up praying at my doorstep?”

WHATEVER WORKS is likely to wind up on the sidelines of classic Woody Allen with the passable likes of MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY and SMALL TIME CROOKS; fine fluffy films that have just enough laughs and memorable moments to get by. It’s telling that it began life as a screenplay in the 70’s written for Zero Mostel. The film if produced then would’ve probably come in the pivotal period between his early funny movies and the more thoughtful relationship films that redefined his style.

David, who has actually appeared in a Woody Allen film before (a bit part in Allen’s short film “Oedipus Wrecks” in NEW YORK STORIES), is a wonderfully inspired choice here despite that he is clearly not an actor. His panic attacks are incredibly unconvincing and some of his line readings are stiff, yet he still works as this sneering character who declares ours to be a “failed species”.

There are no new lessons to be learned or insights to be gleaned from this film – its sensibility is simply that we are all doomed, life is short, and you’ve got to get and give happiness wherever you can. Over almost 40 films as director, Allen has relayed these messages many times and maybe here they just form a clothesline on which to hang a bunch of jokes, but for this long-time fan * WHATEVER works, as implausible and predictable as it is. But be warned, if you are not a fan, I highly suspect “Whatever” won’t work.

* I must stress that I haven’t been very fond of much of Allen’s work in this last decade. See “What’s Up With Woody? Case In Point: CASSANDRA’S DREAM” (June 1st, 2008) for example.

More later…

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