I remember when I first heard about Larry David starring in a new Woody Allen movie I was as giddy as a cliché. Unfortunately the result from 2009, Whatever Works, did not work for me then or when watching it again this week.
David plays Boris Yelnikoff, a comically misanthropic former quantum physicist who has given up his day job after a failed marriage and a failed suicide attempt, and now teaches kids to play chess in between complaining about how far everyone is beneath him intellectually. He befriends then begrudingly falls in love with the much younger Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) who has come to Manhattan from the South. When her parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr) try to bring her home, they suddenly find their own artistic and sexual calling, while Melodie finds a more age-appropriate love with the handsome Randy Lee James (Henry Cavill).
Yeesh. Just as after the high of Match Point came Scoop, after the high of Vicky Christina Barcelona came Whatever Works. Like Scoop, it has its charms, but it just can’t compare with its previous entry in the filmography. And like Scoop, it seems tired, which actually isn’t surprising given its origins as a screenplay Woody Allen wrote in the 1970s. When we hear Groucho’s song ‘Hello, I Must Be Going’ over the opening titles and the first monologue by Boris we are suddenly reminded that, oh yeah, Woody used to be a big Marx-brothers fan who made funny films with characters who talked to the camera, before he went to Europe and made more grown-up fare. But that nostalgic glow soon wears off.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is either the central character or performance of Boris/Larry. He’s not supposed to be likeable, but he is also not as outright unlikeable as the character Woody played in Deconstructing Harry. We’re probably supposed to find him loveable, whereas he mostly comes across as just annoying. And I say that as a big fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where I’m used to seeing Larry David whine and complain about human relationships/foibles/social graces/existence. Woody Allen isn’t as pessimistic in his view of the world – there is hope, after all, at the end of Manhattan, and there is romance to be found in the beautiful vistas and soulful jazz soundtracks of his films. All Curb offers is that ironic oom-pah refrain and no hope, just more things that frustrate.
Another reason for the letdown of Whatever Works is that it heralded Woody Allen’s return to New York after four films abroad. Unfortunately it’s in a mostly set-bound film, with nothing like the interesting visuals which accompanied his previous US film, Anything Else. Speaking of which, both films’ titles are throwaway philosophies by lead characters as a means to endure human suffering. Find what joy you can, no matter if you’re (as this film points out) an old man marrying a younger woman, or a photographer with no appreciation for art, or a conservative husband who discovers he is gay.
What is there to like in this film? The cast is great, particularly Evan Rachel Wood as the dippy Southern belle. The reliably brilliant Michael McKean pops up too, but like Clarkson and Begley Jr, you can’t help but wish he was given a better script to work with. Given the sophisticated, subtle, cinematic heights of Vicky Christina Barcelona, it’s funny to think the same writer-director could deliver the old-fashioned, stagey Whatever Works one year later. And not ha-ha funny.
Next week: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger