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2 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Whatever Works
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Kvetch Me If You Can"
4 stars

In an interview with NPR to promote his latest comedy, “Whatever Works,” Woody Allen claims that he originally wrote the screenplay back in the Seventies and that it was originally designed as a vehicle for Zero Mostel (with whom he had worked on the 1976 blacklist drama “The Front”)--when that didn’t pan out, he put it aside and only brought it out of mothballs more than thirty years later in order to have a project ready to go before the recent Writers Guild strike. Quite frankly, the decades-long delay was probably the best possible thing that could have happened to this particular project. If it had been made at that time, when Allen’s reputation as America’s leading comedic filmmaker was at its zenith, I have a feeling that critics and audiences alike would have been appalled with its scattershot storytelling and relentlessly abrasive comedic tone--if they rejected a genuinely ambitious work like “Interiors” for straying too far out of their comfort zone, this would have driven them absolutely nuts.

However, as those who have been paying attention to Allen’s prolific career (he has been averaging a movie a year since the early Seventies and “Whatever Works” is his 40th effort to date) have noticed, his output has grown more and more uneven over the years--he will make a genuinely invigorating and inspired work like “Match Point” and then turn around and immediately follow it up with dreck like “Scoop”--and as a result, his artistic bar has been lowered to the point where if one of his films avoids hitting the depths of things like “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Anything Else,” most viewers are likely to feel as though they are coming out ahead. As a result, what probably wouldn’t have passed muster in the halcyon days of “Manhattan” and “Stardust Memories” now looks pretty good when stacked up against the likes of “Cassandra’s Dream” and while that may not be the most fair and equitable way to judge the film, it is at least an honest one.

The film stars Larry David as Boris Yellnikoff, a former physics professor whose dark and misanthropic view of the world has left him with a busted marriage, a limp from a failed suicide attempt and an existence that consists largely of teaching chess to little kids and espousing his various views of the world to a group of old friends--in either case, he grumbles and moans and rails against the cretins of the world. While returning to his shabby apartment one night, he is accosted by Melodie St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a beautiful-but-dumb runaway from the Deep South whose has just landed in the Big Apple with no friends, family or prospects. Because she is spectacularly dumb (she buys it when Boris tells her that his limp comes from his days with the Yankees), she takes a bizarre shine to him despite his insults and begs him to let her stay for a few days. Because she is spectacularly beautiful, Boris allows her to stay. While he pretends to have no interest in her at all, despite her very obvious (and frankly inexplicably) interest in him, and insults her intelligence at every given turn, he does eventually begin to succumb to her unique charms and before long, they get married. This does not suit well with Melodie’s mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who unexpectedly arrives on their doorstep after her husband (Ed Begley Jr.) leaves her for another woman, gets her first look at her son-in-law and begins scheming to get her daughter out of her marriage and into the arms of the first hunky young actor (Henry Cavill) that she meets. As she is doing that, however, the magic of the big city begins to transform her from a sexually repressed and fanatically religious Southern lass into a bohemian artist who specializes in shocking photographic collages and who eventually moves in with two lovers--all of which comes as news to her husband when he arrives in town in order to win her back.

Unlike the vast majority of Allen’s films, which tend to be fairly consistent in tone throughout, “Whatever Works” is pretty uneven and scattershot. While it may be true that Allen consigned the original screenplay to a drawer 30 years ago, he must have retained some affection for it because he clearly used bits and pieces from it to inspire some of his later films--“Manhattan” and the underrated “Deconstructing Harry” immediately come to mind--but the downside to that is that “Whatever Works” now has a certain ring of familiarity to it that wouldn’t have been there if it had been produced when it was originally written. All the Southern-born characters are broadly portrayed as refugees from a lesser Tennessee Williams play and the notion that they are instantly transformed into newer and better people once they spend a little quality time in New York is more than a little condescending. At the same time, however, Boris’ curmudgeonly behavior throughout also becomes a little too much to bear--even if we accept the fact that Melodie isn’t the brightest bulb around, the way he continues to belittle her intelligence long after they are married, even if it is meant in a semi-affectionate way, is often jarring. The other major problem with the film is that after a while, the screenplay becomes a bit of a mess--once all the secondary characters begin popping up in the second half, the central relationship between Boris and Melodie kind of gets lost in the shuffle and Allen’s determination to give all of his characters a happy ending leads to a couple of plot developments that are a bit hard to swallow.. At the same time, however, the performances are pretty good throughout--Larry David figures out a way of filtering Allen’s comedic approach through his own unique sensibilities while avoiding the temptation to simply do an Allen impression and Clarkson pretty much steals every scene she is in with her hilarious riff on the fading Southern belle stereotype. Additionally, there are many big laughs scattered throughout the film--there is an inspired running gag involving Boris’ constant breaking of the fourth wall that plays like a parody of similar moments in “Annie Hall” and the dialogue is filled with punchy one-liners. (The line “And with that, they entered the gallery” may be the single funniest thing you will hear this summer, though I admit that it doesn’t play well out of context.)

As I said, “Whatever Works” is nowhere near what Allen is capable of doing when he is working at the peak of his powers, but it is nowhere near as disastrous as some of his more recent efforts. Coming on the heels of the lovely “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” it may seem like a step backwards but I would take that over the free-fall plunge of something like “Celebrity” any day of the week. Those who have disliked Allen’s films in the past will most likely hate this one as well--the only consolation is that most people who feel this way wouldn’t be going to see it in the first place. Those who have never seen one of his films before may find it somewhat amusing, though they would be well advised to seek out some of his better works as their entry point into his filmography. As for fans of his work and intelligent moviegoers looking for a way to avoid both the heat and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” I suspect that many of them will spark to its modest charms and forgive it for its flaws in the way that you will forgive the cooks at your favorite take-out restaurant for the occasional meal that isn’t quite up to snuff. You know, whatever works.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18465&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/26/09 00:04:18
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User Comments

1/31/11 millersxing Larry David, a "genius" who looks like an FAS baby of Boris Yeltsin & a bottle of Smirnoff 2 stars
5/05/10 Dave Bowman Marvelously redundant! Superbly vapid! Hysterically annoying! 1 stars
4/25/10 JM Synth It is a bit Allen-by-numbers, but it "works". Genial and witty 4 stars
11/03/09 queenmab55@hotmail.com Allen is losing his chops. Mega-klinker! 1 stars
7/03/09 mr.mike Has it's moments but not one of Mr. Allen's best. Wood shines , however. 3 stars
6/27/09 Phineas One-sided "comedy"- Racist Jews right,White Southerners/Christians wrong. 1 stars
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  19-Jun-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-Oct-2009


  DVD: 27-Oct-2009

Directed by
  Woody Allen

Written by
  Woody Allen

  Ed Begley Jr.
  Patricia Clarkson
  Larry David
  Evan Rachel Wood

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