After forty-two films and the current rate of one film per year, Woody Allen remains his own greatest ally and foe. His innate talent and ability coupled with his freedom to make a film entirely on his own terms with just about every professional actor willing to drop everything and work for him (except Nicole Kidman who couldn’t find a good movie with two hands a flashlight) is refreshing in an age of endless franchises and inevitable compromise to hit all four quadrants in a demographic. Sadly, Allen’s greatest drawback is his insistence to make one film per year. Perhaps his process works best at an accelerated rate but I feel that it forces him to retread and neglect the polish that would best serve his film. His latest, “Whatever Works”, is a good film but could be great with just a little more time and effort. Thankfully, it’s not a disappointing and eye-rolling “been there, done that”.
“Whatever Works” stars Larry David as genius misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff. Boris is certainly an Allen-neurotic but I saw far more in common with the “Larry David” character from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” except completely unleashed. In “Curb”, David is constantly struggling with a comedy of manners and the restraints of society. Boris doesn’t have to worry about that and has no problem letting the whole world know how stupid they are, despite Boris’ endless misery, poverty, and lack of faith in humanity. Of course, David’s skill, as it is on “Curb” is that no matter how repulsive he can act, you can never get mad at him because of the fourth wall (which Boris breaks to talk to the audience even though all the other characters wonder who he’s talking to) and because David is such a comical-looking figure with his raspy voice, lanky appearance, and the baldness. Always with the baldness.
I was excited for this film because of the teaming of Allen and David and it didn’t disappoint. But I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of his co-star, Evan Rachel Wood. Wood plays young runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine, a sweet but ignorant girl from Mississippi who crosses paths with the surly Yellnikoff and the unlikely pair end up getting married. I have never seen a Wood performance I enjoyed until this film. She is funny, charming, and plays the innocent so well that even though the film doesn’t need her to bring sunshine to Boris’ constant raincloud, she does it anyway and after finding her grating in films like “Thirteen”, “Across the Universe”, and “The Wrestler”, I think she may have found her calling in comedy rather than drama.
After that first act pairing, the film isn’t so much about the story as much as it’s a character comedy about how people come into each other’s spheres of influence and the chance of unlikely love when we open ourselves to possibilities we never previously thought possible. It’s all done with a very broad brush as Wood’s parents (played by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.), southern Christian fundamentalists, arrive in New York and go full-on liberal, turning a complete 180 from their former lives.
Where the film has problems is in a slow start, tiresomely repetitive insults (you can only hear “inchworm” and “cretin” thrown so many times before you crave some variety in calling others dumb), and a meandering third act. But it shines with its main cast and Allen’s patented zingers. If not for the skillful-yet-subtle cinematography, the film could easily be adapted into a stage play as it relies so heavily on its actors and the dialogue but has most of the action take place in only a handful of locations.
“Whatever Works” won’t land in the top ten of Allen’s work. I can easily name five better comedies he’s done. But this isn’t a “Hollywood Ending” or an “Anything Else”. He’s got a good one this year. But maybe with a little more time, it could have been a great one.
Rating —– B minus