With his late-career peak, 1992’s Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen explored the rocky slope of marriage in all its complex infidelities and regrets. Since around that time, the filmmaker’s insight into the nature of relationships has been on decline, favoring loopy larks like last year’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now his latest trifle, Whatever Works. Here Allen once again takes a frustratingly naive look at the interactions between men and women, and presents an overly familiar assessment of life’s many happy and unhappy coincidences. And though a return to his home turf of NYC held the potential of invigorating the aging director’s slipping craft, this screenplay (written, originally, for Zero Mostel back during the Annie Hall salad days, and feeling just as musty and dated as its vintage would suggest), simply isn’t as sharp as Allen’s classics, further let down by improvisational actor Larry David whose performance never rises above a bargain-bin version of Allen’s own narcissistic and whiny persona.
David plays crotchety misanthrope and self-proclaimed “genius” Boris Yellnikoff, warning at the outset (during a clunky talk-to-the-audience device) that he’s not a “likable guy.” When he jokes, “if you want to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage,” it’s pretty clear that Whatever Works isn’t going to be as funny as Allen’s best material. A long monologue, in which David rehashes familiar Allen ideology (the world’s cruel, marriage is cruel, people are cruel, occasionally you’re happy, death is inevitable, yada yada) doesn’t help to stave off accusations that much of Allen’s latest is recycled from earlier, better films. However, finding familiar subject matter in a new Allen film should be surprising to no one.
Boris proceeds to describe his marriage as being “far from a bed of roses” and, “botanically speaking,” his wife as a “Venus Flytrap,” then confesses to a failed suicide attempt, and his seemingly irrational separation from his beautiful, talented and younger wife. Boris blames their marital failure on the “rational” nature of their union, and spontaneously decides to divorce and move across town. He takes up teaching chess to kids — and by “teaching,” he swears at his students ad nauseam, calls them “cretins” and tells their parents what idiots they are. There’s a mean-spirited nature to Boris that, though announced at the beginning, is no less unpleasant and grating.
This makes the next development all the more difficult to take, though totally expected: Late one night, Boris discovers a ragamuffin southern bell in his trash, begging for food and shelter, and he can’t bring himself to shoo her away (try as he does). Her name is Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), and she says she’s 21 but looks about 18 (“you’re 21 like I play for the New York Yankees”). She’s as dumb as an ox and Boris takes pity on her, as she guilts him into letting her stay the night. Naturally, as this is an Allen movie, the waif-y, frail and young beauty falls head-over-heels for the shrill, endlessly griping Boris, who teaches her the meaninglessness of existence and has to continually remind her he never played for the New York Yankees.
As was the case in 2006’s murder mystery romp Scoop, Allen doesn’t give us characters that approach even the vaguest semblance of reality. This is screwball comedy, which perhaps makes it all a bit easier to stomach than last year’s similarly vacant (but far too convinced of its own importance) Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In Whatever Works, Allen goes all in for crazy: Patricia Clarkson shows up as Melodie’s god-fearing mother, then pulls a complete cultural 180, becoming a pornographic photographer/modern artist and moving in with two men. Even less easy to stomach is the hurried transformation of Melodie’s father (Ed Begley Jr.), which not only feels like a tacked-on afterthought but presents a borderline offensive rendering of homosexual repression, culminating in the line “every time the tight-end bent over…” Still, it’s not the dialogue (a characteristically uneven mix of jokes that land and jokes that land with a thud) that’s the problem here; it’s David, unable to communicate the depth of character found in Allen’s best roles, and coming off as a wholly one-dimensional blow-hard. Boris is the kind of Allen character who’s allowed to be deemed a “genius” without really hinting toward anything particularly relevant he’s accomplished or any scholarly inclinations. Even in his later roles, Allen exhibits an incredible gift for deadpan comedic timing, and there’s a rhythmic nature to his diatribes; David possesses none of this skill, delivering his every line bluntly, and seemingly without the slightest idea of how to distinguish between the comedy and the levity of his character’s behaviors.
So if David is the film’s greatest failing, Evan Rachel Wood is its greatest asset; the actress proves to be a much more suitable muse for Allen than the flat Scarlet Johannson, as well as a surprising screwball talent who brings more depth to her completely ridiculous part than seasoned co-star Clarkson (here riffing on a cartoon similar to that she played in Vicky Cristina). Following a parade of uniformly similar roles as disaffected, rebellious youths in The Wrestler, Down in the Valley, and with her breakout role in Thirteen, Whatever Works is a refreshing change of pace for Wood, steering her away from a career trajectory as reliably predictable as that of Giovanni Ribisi. Allen also rings some amount of pathos from Boris’ simple, titular moto, a suggestion that we take whatever happiness we can find in this world and make it work for us in any way we can, for as long as we can (it’s a bit how I felt about the film: enjoy whatever little bits you can). It’s a modest mantra but a sincere one nonetheless, perhaps deserving of a more refined film than this highly implausible, only mildly entertaining romp.