2009, PG-13, 92 min. Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Henry Cavill, Michael McKean, Conleth Hill.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 3, 2009
After five years of making films abroad, Allen returns to his old stomping grounds of Manhattan for his latest comedy, Whatever Works. The lead character, Boris Yellnikoff, is a familiar Allen curmudgeon, but instead of casting himself as he so often does, Allen this time casts Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s David as his onscreen narrator substitute (who, in typical Allen film mode, frequently speaks directly to the audience). Crankier but not as neurotic as most of Allen’s male leads, Yellnikoff is a misanthropic misfit of the highest order. A genius and former scientist, Yellnikoff now lives by himself in a crummy apartment in Chinatown (having divested himself of a wife to whom he felt too well-matched and a fine apartment in Beekman Place). Yellnikoff earns a living teaching chess to youngsters and spends his leisure time hanging out with his friends in restaurants, argumentatively pontificating on all that comes within his purview. Into his life tumbles naive waif Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Wood), a Southern beauty-pageant princess who’s become a New York City runaway. She begs him for food, and his inner marshmallow invites her up to his apartment for a meal, which turns into a place to sleep – and, before you know it, marriage. The movie’s conceit is that this guileless Mississippi innocent, who laps up every one of Yellnikoff’s misanthropic assertions as a pearl of wisdom, is his perfect romantic foil. (Only for one brief moment, when the use of Viagra is casually mentioned, must we contemplate the idea of sex between these otherwise platonic two, whose age difference is greater than four decades. It’s also best not to dwell too intently on Allen’s stereotypical portrait of Southerners as Bible-thumping know-nothings; his narrative license is egregious, but then again, the story’s told from a misanthrope’s perspective.) In time, Melodie’s mother (scene-stealing Clarkson) arrives in New York, followed later by her father (Begley Jr.), and both characters undergo their own wild transformations under the spell of the Big Apple. Their tangential story arcs eventually upstage those of Yellnikoff and Melodie, to the detriment of the movie as a whole. Allen’s greatest problem as a writer-director is the speed with which he cranks out movies, allowing himself insufficient time to hone a script’s ragged edges or work scenes through with his actors. Nevertheless, Wood finds her own equilibrium in the character of Melodie, mixing sincere naivete with bouncy self-assuredness to create a leading lady who’s every bit the equal of the other actresses (Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Penélope Cruz) who’ve gone on to win Oscars for their work in Allen’s films. Populated with scores of witty one-liners and excellent performances by David and Wood, Whatever Works feels more like a Woody Allen movie than have many of his recent films. Still, for a movie that goes out of its way to mock the pious self-delusions of Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Whatever Works offers us an ending that practically insults our intelligence. Consider our enthusiasm curbed.