There are two things it’s hard to get away from when discussing Woody Allen: the first is that his output is so constant, there’s going to be winners mixed with losers. Over the last couple years, Allen’s talent has been scattershot to say the least, but then he might surprise you with a film like Match Point, or Vicki Christina Barcelona. Even his early funny period had some misfires, but that leads into the second point, which is that Allen has not been strong for a long time. You can never count him out, but the 21st century is easily his weakest period of cinema. Whatever Works, however, was written a very long time ago, and it shows, so it combines early funny with later Woody. My review after the jump.
Larry David stars as Boris Yellnikof (really? This must be a leftover name for when Zero Mostell was going to play the lead in the 70’s), a PHD who spends most of his time complaining and acting like the central Allen figure, the comic misanthrope. He takes in Melodie St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young girl from the south who is currently homeless. At first he wants nothing to do with her, but then the two fall in love, after Boris gradually warms up to her. Trouble comes when her parents come to take her back, with her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) deeply troubled by Boris, but as Marietta spends time in New York she eventually loosens up and enters into a loving relationship with two men. Then her father (Ed Begley Jr.) comes and is similarly intoxicated on the freedoms of New York.
There’s not much here, and the Red-State/Blue-state sensibilities are a bit on the nose. That these hermetically sealed Southerners ripped from a bad off-Broadway Tennessee Williams riff are stereotypical to a fault, and when they are taken in by the Big Apple it’s in ways that are schematic to a fault. In Allen’s world in this film, everyone benefits from being a New Yorker.
And its understanding of the mysteries of love is not much deeper. People meet and fall in love, and though the film does do well with showing Boris warming, it’s a very simple movie. But such is also its charms. It’s a light romantic comedy, and the film wouldn’t work if Larry David wasn’t such a perfect Allen surrogate. David’s personality brings out different things out of Allen’s dialog, and yet he feels as natural a performer of it as has ever been on screen (I guess ranking with John Cusack and Rebecca Hall). The rest of the supporting cast is fine, but these archetypes serve a certain function, though you can see a little bit of Mira Sorvino’s ditzy hooker from Mighty Aphrodite in the character, and maybe a little bit of early Diane Keaton in Wood’s Melodie. At the same time, this offers the pleasures of late Woody.
It’s a short film (92 min.), it’s put together with the casual style of a master, and most of the laugh lines are solid. If I’m not over the moon, this is middle drawer Woody at best, but it’s also likeable, and that gets it over. Minor, for sure, but not without pleasures.
Sony Pictures Classics presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 DTS HD surround. Allen’s films are normally in 2.0 mono, and though the transfer is DTS 5.1, you would never know – everything comes from the front. Extras are limited to a trailer, but the transfer is – as to be expected – excellent.