Whatever Works Review

(2.5 STARS)

Perhaps a more apt title for Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” would have simply been “Whatever,” because that’s exactly what I felt about the film when it finished. It was whatever. I didn’t dislike it, but almost nothing about it was original, and while it was clever in parts, it didn’t measure up to either past Allen or past Larry David.

David stars as Boris, who is perhaps the most pessimistic man in New York. He believes he has a more complete outlook on life than most of the other “inchworms” running around the city, but that complete outlook has only brought him trouble in the form of two divorces, a crippling fear of death and sickness, a hostile resistance to change, and a suicide attempt. Yet Boris has no problem telling people exactly what he thinks of them, and he rarely thinks anything nice about people.

One day, he comes across a young girl living in the alley behind his apartment. Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) is from Mississippi and has nowhere to go and nothing to her name. Against his better impulses, Boris allows her to stay with him, but over the course of a few months, the two develop a strange bond. She has a crush on him, and he relies on her to keep his life in order. Soon, their relationship develops further and the two are married. But when Melody’s ultra-religious mother (Patricia Clarkson) and father (Ed Begley, Jr.) arrive (separately) to rescue her, Melody is forced to examine her feelings, while Boris is forced to fight for the woman he loves.

The film contains a lot of Allen’s trademarks. Boris often breaks the fourth wall, informing his friends and acquaintances that there is an audience watching and laughing at them. Between the presence of David and Allen, there is an overload of neuroticism. There is the flighty, indecisive female protagonist. And of course, the setting is New York (although it isn’t as prevalent as it was in, say, “Manhattan”). All that stuff is fine and well, but it doesn’t add anything new. And everything that’s here that we love about Allen has been done before in his superior motion pictures.

The performances are alright, with one exception. Larry David does his best Woody Allen (which isn’t hard because he is essentially an over-the-top version of Woody Allen on “Curb”), and skates through unscathed. Patricia Clarkson is delightful as always. Her Marietta is the film’s most interesting character. Evan Rachel Wood, on the other hand, is a problem. I think she is a fine actress (maybe even an Oscar winner one day), but her character is annoying as hell. It’s not just the accent, but everything she does will drive you up the wall. It could be the fault of the screenplay (which on the whole is solid, but unremarkable – like the film), but Wood doesn’t help herself out at all.

There is still something to be said about the pairing of David and Allen. It seems like a match made in heaven, and in many ways, it is. Their senses of comedy complement each other quite well. But I think it could have been more successful with a little more Larry David and a little less Woody Allen. Whenever David delivers a line, he does a sense of sarcasm and pompousness that can only be described as Allen-esque. On “Curb,” David’s tirades are harmless. He’s a buffoon who sticks his foot in his mouth, but he doesn’t have the vitriol of a character like Boris. In that way, I think the collaboration failed. The director’s style dominated when it could have been a more enjoyable experience if the actor’s style did.

Like a lot of Allen’s recent work, “Whatever Works” was largely ignored by audiences. I happen to think the director hasn’t lost too much from his late 1970s glory days. “Match Point” was a triumph – one of his best ever, and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was excellent as well. “Whatever Works,” however, falls into the same category as “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Melinda and Melinda” – not necessarily without their small pleasures, but almost instantly forgotten.

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