Monday, June 29, 2009

Movie Review: Whatever Works

Whatever Works *** ½
Directed By:
Woody Allen.
Written By: Woody Allen.
Starring: Larry David (Boris Yellnikoff), Evan Rachel Wood (Melodie St. Ann Celestine), Patricia Clarkson (Marietta), Conleth Hill (Leo Brockman), Henry Cavill (Randy James), Olek Krupa (Morgenstern), Ed Begley Jr. (John), Michael McKean (Joe), Christopher Evan Welch (Howard), Jessica Hecht (Helena).

It’s nice to have Woody Allen home in New York again after a number of years abroad. I know Allen has said that he made his most recent films – Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and Vicky, Cristina Barcelona – abroad because of money concerns, and although with the exception of Scoop, I have really like all of them, there is something unnatural about watching a Woody Allen film set somewhere else. Like Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, Allen is a New York filmmaker, whose films bring the city to life in a way that few others have been able to do.

Whatever Works is a throwback to the films of Allen’s past. Apparently, he wrote this screenplay around the time of Annie Hall and Manhattan – 30 years ago – and the movie certainly does fit in with the films Allen was making in that period. He has updated the film some to make it relevant and timely in 2009, but this still has all the hallmarks of those late ‘70s classics. Perhaps Allen did not make it back then, because he wasn’t sure if he was up to playing the role of Boris Yellnikoff, the brilliant (at least in his own mind) physicist, who looks down on the rest of the world as intellectual “inchworms” and “cretins”. But Larry David, who he casts as his surrogate in this film, was made for this role. He plays it better than Allen could have ever done. He is perhaps the best of all the Woody surrogates over the years, because he is enough like Allen, that he doesn’t feel the need to try and do an impression, but different enough that you feel you are watching someone else playing the role, instead of watching someone play Allen playing the role.

Boris is a depressed hypochondriac who has left his rich wife, and his job teaching physics at Columbia, and now teaches chess to children in the park, who he berates with insults when they make a dumb move – and according to Boris pretty much everything is a dumb move. He is a misanthrope, but somewhat happy being one – or at least as happy as Boris is capable of being. He is not happy at all, unless he is miserable.

Into his life appears Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, proving at least that Allen doesn’t have to cast Scarlett Johansson in every damn movie he makes). She is a poor girl from Mississippi, who has run away from home, and now finds herself on the street. Against his better judgment, Boris invites her inside, and allows her to sleep on his couch until she can find a job. Melodie’s sunny disposition is at first annoying to him, and she is certainly not very smart. But she grows a little crush on him, and eventually he is worn down. They get married. Then Melodie’s born again Christian mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) arrives, and she hates her new son in law.

The movie, it must be said, is a comic fantasy. Is there any real way that a girl like Melodie would fall in love with a guy like Boris and vice versa? Not really. But if they didn’t, then there wouldn’t be a plot to the movie. And to be fair to Allen, I don’t think he really believes it either, hence where the movie ends up when everything is wrapped up. The basic premise of the movie is summed up perfectly by the title. Screw what society, what religion, what anyone else says is normal behavior and relationships. You’re only responsible for trying to make yourself, and the people in your life happy. And if you find something that works, hang onto it, no matter what anyone else says.

The film’s cast is pretty much perfect. In addition to David, who is essentially playing a version of himself that he has perfected on Curb Your Enthusiasm over the years, mixed with some of Woody’s comic persona, every other role is filled out perfectly. Evan Rachel Wood is a comic delight as Melodie – chipper and cheerful, and delightfully dimwitted, you cannot help falling for her. Allen has written this type of role before – most notably for Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose and Mia Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite – but I think Wood plays the role better than either of them did. Patricia Clarkson is perfect as the born again Christian woman, who finds that New York really does have a corrupting influence on her – and she couldn’t be happier about it. And I loved Ed Begeley Jr. when he shows up late in the film as Melodie’s father, spewing bible passages, before making his confession.
So while Whatever Works is not going to be counted among Allen’s masterpieces – like Annie Hall and Manhattan surely are – and it doesn’t seem quite as fresh and daring as those film did (how could it? It was written 30 years ago), it is also one of the most enjoyable, and funny, films I have seen so far this year.

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