“Vintage Woody Allen” would be the most appropriate label for 2009’s Whatever Works, because that’s never been truer. Woody initially wrote this film back in 1977 as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, but the screenplay was set aside when Mostel inconsiderably died before the film could be made. However when Woody’s one-movie-a-year output was placed in jeopardy by a threatened actor’s strike in 2008 and he needed a movie ready to go sooner than usual, he resurrected the old script and gave it a quick rewrite. Whatever Works marks the writer-director’s return to New York City following several filmmaking endeavours in Europe, and it features a number of his touchstones: The philosophizing of Annie Hall, the misanthropy of Deconstructing Harry, and the customary old man/young lover theme present in a lot of Woody’s prior films. A familiarity that clouds the entire enterprise notwithstanding, this typically Woody-esque, comical mediation on human existence and love is the filmmaker’s most effective and hilarious comedy in years (the fact that Woody wrote this film around the same time as Annie Hall probably has something to do with that).
Whatever Works opens brilliantly with Boris Yellnikoff (David) breaking the fourth wall (a typical Woody Allen technique) as he addresses the camera to introduce his narrative. However this isn’t an aside; Boris is doing it in the middle of New York City in full view of bystanders. His friends think he has utterly lost it, especially when he explains that they are in fact being watched by thousands of people in theatres. This technique begins the film with an easy charm; a sly smile in the audience’s direction.
Boris is an adamant misanthropist who bad-mouths children, shows little patience for anyone, and even insults the most inoffensive individuals who cross his path (perceiving them as imbecilic simpletons of inferior intellect). He also impresses his ideologies on religion, relationships and the randomness of existence upon anyone willing to listen. But when Boris begrudgingly allows naïve Mississippi runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Wood) into his apartment, his reclusive rage gives way to an unlikely friendship.
Amidst this narrative, there are talky conversations at landmarks and outdoor cafés; all taking place in the New York City that Woody Allen has celebrated throughout his career. The time of separation away from his native Manhattan (during which he worked in London and Spain) has reinvigorated his work — there’s a great sense of liveliness and spirit. It’s a joy to see the filmmaker back in this territory. However, Whatever Works is far from flawless — in between the one-liners and witty dialogue, the narrative odds and ends of the film feel perfunctory, even resigned. The second half of the movie (full of reunions and subplots to extend the runtime) isn’t as well-paced as the blisteringly hilarious, rapid-fire first half. In addition, the movie’s philosophy may be about life being full of surprises, but Allen’s recent output is only rarely surprising. Whatever Works reinforces the notion that the writer-director’s creative well has run dry; his films now either spectacles featuring attractive characters in foreign locales (like 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) or comedic larks in which notable names embody the archetypal Woody Allen role. These criticisms notwithstanding, his latest efforts are still entertaining, and with the comfortable space he’s created for himself he can just get on with being Woody Allen without fretting (ironically).
Interestingly, the three decades have been kind to Woody’s script for Whatever Works. It’s just as funny — maybe even funnier — as it would’ve been back in 1977, and it feels more audacious and relevant in 2009. As a matter of fact, much of what makes the film seem daring is as a result of the passage of time. The elements guaranteed to startle in 2009 — a ménage à trois, a homosexual awakening, the generally irreligious tone — would be far less shocking to a ’70s audience. The fact that Allen presents these in a matter-of-fact, offhanded manner reflects the earlier era, making them more provocative all these decades later. Since Whatever Works is a dosage of old-school Allen, the dialogue is boundlessly witty and there are some killer one-liners. Boris’ diatribes are hysterical; the best Woody has written for years (once again coming back to the fact that the material was written in the ’70s). Probably the most note-worthy aspect of the movie is that it’s one of Allen’s most optimistic films about life and love to date.
Curb Your Enthusiasm comedian Larry David is an excellent Boris Yellnikoff. David was a natural to play the “Woody Allen role”, and he handles himself excellently; making his character appealing and tolerable without diluting his nasty side. According to Allen, Boris is an extreme exaggeration of his feelings — to that end, David’s gleeful portrayal of the unyielding misanthrope is more savage and belligerent than Woody has even been. Boris’ omnipotent contempt is nothing new, but the mean-spirited ferocity is. The 74-year-old Allen could have probably pulled off the character, yet it still works with a surrogate. As a side note, there are lines delivered by Larry David that Zero Mostel might have gotten more comedic mileage out of.
David receives solid support from Evan Rachel Wood (previously seen in 2008’s The Wrestler), who manages to make her role of Melodie dopey and callow but not grating or obvious. The actress disappears into the role of the Southern dumbbell to the extent that she’s almost unrecognizable. Patricia Clarkson (who starred in Woody’s 2008 project Vicky Cristina Barcelona) shines as Marietta, while Ed Begley Jr. and Henry Cavill fulfil their functions in the story terrifically.
Curiously, the predominantly negative reviews for Whatever Works gripe about the fact that Boris is “too unlikeable” or “unsympathetic”. These critics are missing the point entirely. It’s no accident that (as the familiar old record for the opening credits) Allen chose Groucho Marx singing Hello, I Must Be Going; the character of Boris Yellnikoff is the same type of sharp-witted, bitter grouser that Groucho used to portray. Despite this, Groucho was a comedian and, as often noted, a huge influence on Allen. Did anyone complain about Groucho playing a quick-witted con man who insulted everyone in sight? No, because he was funny. So is Boris Yellnikoff. So is Whatever Works to a tremendous degree. While a viewer may be left with a lingering sense of déjà vu during the movie, this is a fun and funny sit-down; a nourishing dose of old-school Woody Allen ladled on top of a New York that, after all these years, still needs him.