June 19, 2009
In many ways, Larry David is an ideal Woody Allen protagonist. He’s articulate in his rants, often funny, occasionally hilarious. What he lacks in Allen’s nebbishness he makes up for in pure aggression: there’s a hostility to David’s demeanor that’s more a challenge than a passive observation. It’s not that, as with most Allen performances, life is stupid, vain, and silly; with David it’s that you’re stupid, vain, and silly for carrying on with life.
And, I admit, that presence is just about the only reason I wanted to see Whatever Works. It’s by now a cliché to say Allen’s output has been sub-par for the past, oh, 10 pictures or so, with only the occasional uptick like Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But, as earnest young Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) more or less says, sometimes people use clichés because they work. And it’s true: Whatever Works just isn’t that good.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a curmudgeonly hermit and ex-physics professor who only visits his friends when he wants to berate them (and the rest of the world) for being “sub-mental.” Boris is obsessed with the idea of entropy on a micro and macro scale, and thinks the best you can hope for in life is to grab on to anything you can while the getting’s good. Hence the movie’s title.
Of course, cynics only exist in movies to be proven wrong. Boris’s comfortable narcissism is dislodged by babe-in-the-woods Melodie, a Mississippi transplant lost and homeless in big, bad NYC. She’s sweet, cute, prone to wearing cleavage-y tops and spouting homespun phrases dripping with Suth’run charm. Boris takes her in. Because this is a Woody Allen movie, it isn’t long before 60-something Boris and 21-year-old Melodie fall in love and get married at Melodie’s behest.
Yeah, I know.
Melodie’s divorced parents (Ed Begley, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) come to NYC to find her, and wouldn’t you know it? Hijinx ensue, with mean old Boris berating everyone, unconsciously guiding them all toward a more honest life. If you can guess that everyone settles down to the life they should’ve been leading and Boris learns a thing or two about love, then congratulations. You have seen a motion picture before.
I have to wonder who Woody Allen is making movies for. His usual themes—love, lust, looming death, the existence of God (or the lack thereof)—are present if half-baked, and on paper it’s hard to imagine what else could be worth talking about. But who are his mouthpieces? An absurdly hostile nihilist? A country bumpkin with pigtails and tight clothes? The bumpkin’s parents, who look and talk like Red State clichés? Who are these people, and who relates to them?
I have no problem with “stagey” comedy if executed right; loud people don’t bother me all on their own. But such loud contrivance demands witty writing to compensate, and the script isn’t there. Too many scenes telegraph their punchlines from the beginning. That isn’t comedy. That’s a waiting game.
Maybe if there was a more coherent message. It certainly seems like Allen intends there to be one—something about the futility of life and the joy of living it anyway, I don’t know. David may be the lone saving grace in Whatever Works, the one element that consistently brings it up into something like an enjoyable experience. But you know what? You can already find him in more wisely portioned doses on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Skip this, try that.