Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lazy but Fun

Whatever Works
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Christopher Evan Welch
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens June 19, 2009

David and Wood
in Whatever Works
Boris Yellnikoff, the anti-hero of Whatever Works, spews the kind of sarcastic misanthropy we've heard from Woody Allen's characters since Take the Money and Run. Whenever Woody is on screen, he constantly spits out venomous one-liners that cut the other characters down to size. But for whatever reason—Woody says he never thought of playing the part, originally written for Zero Mostel 30 years ago, himself—Whatever Works stars Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame as bigot Boris. What's funny is that, although David is no actor and comes across rather stiffly in his line readings, the movie is more pungently amusing than if Woody had starred in it. Go figure.

The primary reason is that, with David as Woody’s surrogate, we watch and judge this cranky, egotistical former physicist who falls for a much younger airhead at a necessary remove from Allen’s own personal life. Woody would have given his own jokes an extra comic crackle that David can't pull off, but then Whatever Works would have seemed uncomfortably close to Deconstructing Harry, when Woody went down the dark road of self-flagellation playing a horribly egotistical author (supposedly modeled on Philip Roth) whose life, art and even descent into hell are shown to him.

The less ambitious Whatever Works—like his "short story" movies The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Alice, and Mighty Aphrodite—is a breezy, occasionally mordant take on the schlemiel Woody's perfected over the past four decades: a hypochondriacal lover of New York City and young women who has difficulties appreciating his relationships and friendships, but who has a sentimental streak (love of Fred Astaire, old movies and music) that ultimately redeems him.

It's all a fantasy, so it seems churlish of reviewers to complain that Woody cops out by not following Boris to the ultimate dark side. After all, this is a movie propelled by young runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood in a wonderfully layered, humanizing performance), a dumb bag of Southern rocks, and her straitlaced mother Marietta (an hilariously off-the-wall Patricia Clarkson), who comes to love New York when she drops her conservatism and becomes a successful artist and happy bigamist. So suicide is definitely not an option.

Indeed, when Boris does try to end it all a second time and literally falls onto Helena, a female psychic with whom he promptly falls in love, their exchange is pure Woody Allen, the ultimate romantic, in a nutshell: "How come you didn't know I was going to fall on you?" Boris incredulously asks. "Maybe I did," she answers, giving the lie to Boris's air of superiority that, after all, was the last defense of a man afraid to fall in love again.

Of course it's sappy, but skewering one-liners compensate. Upon seeing the skimpy outfit Melodie wears on a date with a young man she met while dog-walking, Boris informs her that she’ll end up in an abortion clinic. David handles the lengthy direct addresses into the camera with a comedian's professionalism, and his unactorish delivery works to the movie’s advantage, even undercutting the fragrance of sanctimony that might have polluted an across-the-board happy ending, when no less than Melodie's estranged father John (Ed Begley, Jr.) finds true love with Howard, played by the scene-stealing Christopher Evan Welch, who also narrated Vicki Cristina Barcelona and proves that Woody’s generosity with actors extends even to those who take over his amiable movies in their final reels.

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