Whatever Works: Finding (and Giving) Happiness in This Miserable World

Woody Allen’s newest film, Whatever Works, is really no more than a trifle compared to some of his other recent successes, such as Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. No wonder– it’s apparently a script from the 1970s, pulled out of the drawer and slightly updated. The film too feels somewhat dusty and in need of a good stretch at the beginning, but as Woody’s characters get more fully fleshed out, the audience gets sucked in. Perhaps I’m not the most objective observer of these films, since I’m of the belief that Woody Allen is the greatest American filmmaker– not the most varied, not the most skilled with a camera, but the most honest and most consistent with his product. While Whatever Works contains some of his stiffer camerawork, he gets great performances from his actresses and the laughs come in spurts throughout. Besides, it’s Woody– even a middling effort is better than most other movies.

The film begins with Groucho Marx singing “Hello, I Must Be Going,” which reflects Boris’s philosophical view on life– we all come into this world pointlessly, just to die after an existence led among cruel, moronic humankind. Boris is played by Larry David, spinning out a version of his curmudgeonly character on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Without warning, a Southern runaway named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) shows up on his doorstep, asking for food and a place to stay. Despite her inferior intelligence, they grow fond of one another and get married. And then a year later, her mother shows up (Patricia Clarkson). And then a year after that, her father shows up (Ed Begley Jr.).

This world view isn’t new for Woody, but it’s never been stated in such a cantankerous manner before. This is his “angriest” comedy since the gut-busting Deconstructing Harry, but it still has an early Woody feel– the monologues to the camera, the relationships between Boris and his friends, the art gallery life that Melody’s mother adapts upon arriving in New York. Larry David, in his first big movie role, is very wooden in his physical movement– when playing yourself on the small screen, lurching around is more acceptable than when portraying a character on the big screen. Still, he provides his indescribable essence to the part, where his jerky behavior is laced with enough momentary charm to make you care, despite calling everyone “cretin” and “moron.” Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson are better actors, and Woody has always made actresses look great. Wood in particular is outstanding: she’s a young actress known for her dramatic chops, but here she is absolutely convincing and shows great comedic timing– this is her most charming performance to date.

Philosophically speaking, this is on the extreme end of Woody’s spectrum– he certainly doesn’t think humans are inchworms or that all Southern people are liberal, art-minded New York types simply repressed by religion and conservatism. However, it makes for a solid basis for comedy which still seems fresh, even with its old-school feel (it’s nice to her Woody talk about Obama, Darfur and other current topics for a change rather than simply Freud, Groucho, and the usuals). Perhaps the reason the film doesn’t have more of an impact at the end is because the lead character doesn’t truly change. Sure, he achieves some new appreciation for the more sensitive sex, but his world view at the beginning is exactly the same as his world view at the end, and the film’s results find truth in his statements. His more recent films have expressed similar philosophies more effectively by having more complex characters and more suspenseful plot machinations, but hey, this is a light Woody Allen comedy. Whatever works.

~ by russellhainline on July 13, 2009.

One Response to “Whatever Works: Finding (and Giving) Happiness in This Miserable World”

  1. i was worried oging to watch this film, becuase all the online critics and audiences where not being very kind to it, along with the fact that I’m not a Woody Allen fan at all. But i do love Larry David and this film worked in many ways. the hyper nihilistic intellectual humor, the odd chemistry between David and Wood, the set and tone of the film and its consistant mood of angst juxtapose wayward fun. i thought the mother becoming a semi-art star swinger and the dad actualizing his repressed homosexual was a bit kitsch and campy, but i liked this movie overall. 3.5/5

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