Saturday, November 28, 2009

Whatever Works (2009)

Woody Allen’s Whatever Works is based on a script he wrote in the seventies and never filmed, and he supposedly made it on the quick right before the SAG strike (which, of course, never actually happened). Critics were hard on the movie, and in many ways it’s easy to see why: it’s got that haphazard quality that so many of Woody’s movies (Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda) have had in recent years, and what interesting points it does make have arguably already been covered in better movies of his like Manhattan and Annie Hall. Yet for all these criticisms (most of which are entirely valid), Whatever Works still manages to, well, work, thanks in part to its lovely tone and feel. There’s no denying that it’s a resoundingly imperfect effort, but it still only serves as further proof of the argument that, for all his faults, Allen still makes the most watchable, breezy films of any modern director.

In classic Allen fashion, the film traces the story of Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a misanthropic New Yorker who abandoned his old life as a near-Nobel laureate physicist to live in a shabby apartment and teach chess to children, who, like everyone else, he refers to as “morons” and “inchworms.” Boris’s insular life takes a strange turn when he decides to let Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young runaway from Mississippi, crash at his place while she searches for a job. Even though he insults her constantly, the impressionable young Melody takes a strange liking to Boris, and soon the two strike up a very unlikely romance.

Like all Allen movies, Whatever Works is much more about character than plot, but what is strange about it is which characters end up being the most compelling. The film suffered from a pretty terrible trailer that served up the particularly egregious Southern accents of Wood, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. (as her fundamentalist parents) front and center. To watch it, you would’ve thought that David’s classic Allenian cynic would be the film’s only saving grace, but the reality turns out to be quite the opposite. It is Wood and Clarkson who turn out to be the funniest characters as the naive Southern belles transformed by the culture of New York City, and David, for all his obvious talent, seems left rushing to catch up. He looks the part of the elitist genius just fine, but his performance here seems the final proof that his particular brand of comedy is best absorbed in thirty minute installments on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like his famous collaborator Jerry Seinfeld, it’s pretty clear he’s no actor, but he works around this fault whenever he’s in the looser construct of his own show. The same cannot be said for his work in this film. He’s funny. He reads his lines well. But that’s just it--for a guy who’s true skill is improv, everything he does here ends up feeling just a little too rehearsed.

David doesn’t get much help from Allen, who affects one of the most flat directorial styles of his career to tell his story. This was a problem of his in the nineties, but you would have been forgiven for thinking he’d turned a corner with recent work like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Unfortunately, his go-to method here is to shoot everything like a stage play. It’s a style he no doubt does better than most, but all it does is highlight David’s shortcomings and add a dangerous air of shallowness to every philosophical statement--and there are many--that his script tries to make.

All these faults are much more apparent than they should be, but the film miraculously manages to stay afloat thanks to the twisted positivity of Allen’s world view. It seems odd to say it, but Whatever Works, for all its talk of the hopelessness of humanity and suicide (which Boris attempts twice--to comic effect), is one of the most feel-good movies I’ve seen in a long time. Allen has always positioned himself as one of film culture’s most staunch neurotics, but if this film proves anything about him, it’s that he’s also a hopelessly positive person, well aware of what he sees as the gentle indifference of the world, but also aware that this means the impetus for happiness is always in the hands of the individual. As the title suggests, for Allen the key to happiness is for each person to find and hold on to whatever small bit of goodness works for them. This idea is reflected throughout the movie, which only manages to get away with having such mean-spirited (Boris) and dim-witted (Melody) characters because it refuses to judge them. That it does it all with Allen’s trademark clever dialogue and razor sharp wit is what really makes it special. There is certainly a danger that goes hand-in-hand with this approach, as it’s easy to worry that Allen could be starting to skate away from the kind of material that made something like Crimes and Misdemeanors so good and toward a style that is just...pleasant. For the time being, though, it’s enough to keep me coming back for more.

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