Film review by: Witney Seibold
After several films in Europe, Woody Allen returns to his local digs on Manhattan. This time, he is paired up with west-coast neurotic Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame, and filming a screenplay he originally wrote back in the 1970s for no one less than Zero Mostel.
Sadly, Larry David is less than Zero Mostel.
David plays a character named Boris Yellnikov, whose idea of a good time is whining about his back, eating bland knishes, and expounding with his pseudo-cultured friends on the meaninglessness of existence and the absence of God. He berates his friends, and belittles anyone who does not agree with him, or who does not have several advanced degrees from certain colleges. And even if you do meet his criteria, he’ll still go out of his way to find something wrong with you.
Boris is such a dour misanthrope on the page, that it’s hard for me to accept a talented comedian like David in the role. David has done some terrific work in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but proves to be more adept at comedy than he is at acting. All through “Whatever Works,” I was recasting the film in my head. What if someone who could be truly sour and ugly and creepy were in the role? What if Kevin Spacey or Timothy Spall had played the part? Then “Whatever Works” would have been a brilliant and penetrating dark comedy about the true nature of misanthropy, and how some people are only truly happy when they are miserable.
But no, Boris is a warm, silly, almost charming little jerk, who, through his relationships with people became a lovable ol’ asshole rather than just a sour one.
How doe she change? A blonde teenage runaway from Mississippi named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) insinuates herself into his place. Melodie is a stupid ditz, and Boris has a grand time insulting her and berating her intelligence. She’s too dumb most of the time to even realize she’s being insulted, and seems to hold Boris’ intelligence in awe, not really caring that he hates the world. Eventually, Boris begins to like having her around, and he eventually marries her. I guess the message is a middle-aged sourpuss can be cured by a few nights in the sack with Evan Rachel Wood. Thank you, Woody Allen.
After than, the film drifts away from Boris, and begins to focus, distractedly, on Melodie and her mom ‘n’ dad (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. both fantastic) who have separately trailed Melodie to New York, and who both discover whole new lifestyles there. The entire third act is a drama about how dad left mom, and mom has a new boyfriend, and dad left his mistress, and mom is now an artist… yeah, you can tell Allen was just spitballing when he wrote these passages.
Wood, an actress who has often grated on my nerves (for reasons that I have trouble defining) is actually fine here, despite her generic Southern accent and broad “stupid” shtick. She can certainly play the ditz far better than Scarlett Johansson did in Allen’s “Scoop.”
I wanted to like this film, but Allen didn’t seem to have his heart in this one. I think melancholy romances and outright tragedies in Europe play more to his strengths in recent years.
If you’d like to hear me talking about “Whatever Works” with the two lovely and gracious hostesses of movie podcast and website, The Popcorn Mafia – by name, Grae Drake and Gariana Abeyta – follow this link: http://www.popcornmafia.com/podcast.php?id=77