Woody Allen Returns to New York
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
The Film Club of the Air: Host Maureen Cavanaugh and critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss Woody Allen's "Whatever Works."
Woody Allen has been consistently putting out almost a movie a year since "Take the Money and Run" in 1969. So the arrival of "Whatever Works" (opened June 26 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) this month was to be expected. But for the first time in five years Allen returns from abroad to check in with his native New Yorkers. He also returns to a script originally written three decades ago for Zero Mostel.
This time around, Woody Allen has found a decent stand in for himself. Larry David makes a much better Woody than Kenneth Branagh ("Celebrity") or Scarlett Johansson ("Scoop"). But David isn't as good a replacement for the late Zero Mostel. In "Whatever Works," David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a genius physicist who missed out on a Nobel Prize. He's also a bitter, sarcastic misanthrope and as he puts it "not a likable guy." It's the type of role Mostel could have pulled off with more bluster than meanness, more showmanship than ego, more exasperation than bitterness. So David starts with a disadvantage. But he still proves entertaining in all his condescending outrage.
As is often the case in Allen's films, the older intellectual attracts a much younger romantic interest. In this case a homeless southern ditz named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) convinces Boris to let her spend the night at his place and then convinces him that they are perfect for each other. Then she begins her transformation into a poor imitation of him as she tries – unconvincingly – to assume his misanthropy and bitterness. Onto the scene arrives Melodie's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) who tries to correct what she sees as her daughter's horrible mistake. But along the way Marietta remakes herself from a southern fried right-winger to a Bohemian artist with two lovers. The film is mostly Boris ranting against the world, and whether or not you like the film will depend on how you feel about being on the receiving end of all his hostility. But Boris concludes that life is short and you should take whatever you can get when it comes your way, and appreciate your good fortune and the value of "whatever works."
After a string of films in foreign countries and with dark undertones, Allen returns to a more sitcomy style of comedy back in his native New York. It's a return to the familiar and it's nice to see him back in the Big Apple. But I'm not sure that reworking a 30 year-old script was the best choice to make. The result is a film that's by no means his best but it's still Woody and he delivers some sharply written dialogue and funny characters. Some may tired of Boris' tirades but it's fun to see someone so unconcerned with the feelings of others and so willing to rant against everything. But there's also a smugness that emerges from Allen through David that dampens the comedy.
The script has been updated but not with any particular eye to recent events or a savvy sense of American life at this moment in time. The film feels like a redo of Allen's own "Mighty Aphrodite" in which Allen strikes up a relationship with Mira Sorvino's sweetly dumb blond. But the material felt fresher then.
I've never been a fan of Evan Rachel Wood, she always strikes me as a bit shrill and affected. But here she conveys a genuine sweetness and ease in front of the camera. But the scene stealer in this film turns out to be Clarkson as Marietta. She's a continual delight. There's also some nice supporting work by Michael McKean (who'd have thought "Laverne and Shirley's" Lenny would turn out to be such a good actor) and Ed Begley, Jr.
"Whatever Works" (rated PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material) doesn't always work but even a flawed Woody Allen film is smarter and better written than most of the other comedies that are out there.
Companion viewing: "Mighty Aphrodite," "Born Yesterday," "Pygmalian"
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