Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Whatever Works (***)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Within the span of Woody Allen's long and prolific career, he has surely recycled some themes about love and life. He has some very devout opinions about the way humanity carries itself and those strong beliefs weave themselves into his screenplays and fall out of the mouths of his more wise characters. Surely, his ideas about religion and morality have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and the manner in which he discusses the unpredictable nature of love has given him some detractors (particularly given his very public and controversial personal life). Over the last few years, Woody and his films have become caricatures of themselves, but somehow Whatever Works manages to escape that, and while the same system is still in place, there is quite a freshness in the characters.

The film is about Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), who was at one time a prospective Nobel Prize nominee, and brilliant metaphysicist. These days, his neuroticism has left him mostly friendless, terrified of death, and has alienated his wife, who divorces him after he tries to commit suicide by jumping out of the window of their downtown New York apartment (he survives because he landed on a canopy). The only friends that he does have become quickly unenthused by his constant negativity and condescending attitude.

When Boris is coming home one day, he finds a young girl laying in trash outside of the door of his apartment. She is Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a very young and very naive Southerner who hopes that she can stay with Boris since she has nowhere else to go. Begrudgingly, Boris allows her to stay, and is quickly forwarding his dark life theory upon her. Mistaking his ponitification for wisdom, Melody grows close to Boris, even though she is more than four decades younger than he is, and even through his rough exterior, Boris begins to find charm in Melody as well.

Their unorthodox relationship becomes even more complicated when Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up. Her husband, Melody's father, has left her for her best friend, and now she too has nowhere to go. She stays with Boris and Melody, even though her contempt with Boris grows quickly. Marietta quickly becomes untangled by the New York City lifestyle, and goes from her pious self, to a promiscuous photographer who sleeps with two men simultaneously. The only thing that doesn't change for Marietta, is her hatred for Boris.

Other zany things occur: such as a young English actor (Henry Cavill) who becomes smitten with Melody and hopes to lure her from Boris, and John (Ed Begley Jr.), Melody's meddling, God-fearing father who comes to New York City hoping to find redemption. The plot lines unfold into all sorts of preposterous, but we are never really questioning any of it, because the film begins with Boris ignoring reality to talk directly to the audience. Its own self-awareness prevents any trouble we may have suspending disbelief.

On paper, the match up of Woody Allen and Larry David seems like perfection. Woody has spent forty years creating the very character that David has perfected on his television show Curb Your Enthusiasm. It does not go as smoothly as many may hope, David takes Woody's disagreeableness and turns it into pure aggression, but all that said, David is one of the more formidable Woody surrogates of the last few years. Of course, addressing the audience and a negative world-view are both Woody staples, so David has many references to look toward.

The main attraction within this film, though, is Wood and Clarkson. As two formerly-ethical Mississipeans swayed into the swinging life of New York City, the two gifted actresses bring enough sweetness and sincerity to make the tranformation seem so much less contrived than it actually is. Wood, a very exciting young actress known mostly for darker films like Thirteen and The Wrestler has a whole lot of fun in this role, allowing Melody to continue possessing her innocence even through her evolution. For Clarkson, we have another in a litany of exceptional work.

It will be very easy to watch Whatever Works and see that Woody has become stunted in his storytelling. It comes as no surprise that the film's screenplay was actually composed in the 70's before Annie Hall. It still possesses that quasi aspect of his films from that time: containing characters that seem isolated within a priveleged world within upper-class New York City. I do not fault Woody for going back to the well, particularly because I didn't care for either of his European films Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There is only one reason why Whatever Works works, and that is because the comedy is sincere and, best of all, funny.

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