Common opinion reckons that Woody Allen, as a director, is a shadow of his former self, churning out low quality duds on a once-a-year basis which result in limiting box-office returns and lukewarm critical scrutiny. Despite a ray of hope in the form of 2008’s excellently sun-soaked Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it wasn’t enough to encourage the naysayers to think twice about their writing-off of such a prolific and well loved auteur. You have to hand it to him, his ability to work at such a continuous and exhausting level is a commendable achievement especially at his age (pushing 74), and it is uncommon that you find such a busy director of a mature age working in Hollywood today. Nevertheless, with his movies not as first-rate as his previous New York-orientated days (Manhattan and Annie Hall being two of my personal favourites), his European dalliances proving far from critical darlings and the comedic levels becoming somewhat “insufficient”, it seems that Allen is rapidly being written off as a has-been filmmaker whose glory days are well and truly behind him.
Having said that, being an Allen aficionado, I have stuck with the director through the trials and tribulations of his latter-day career, possibly due to the fact that he is one of, if not, my all-time favourite directors. I put up with the frankly dire Cassandra’s Dream, the likeably muddled Match Point and the meagre The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, because I knew that this was a director who still had some important things to say about life, love and liaisons. Although I am yet to see some of his movies (Scoop was not given a UK release, which is odd due to its London setting), I still have faith in the ageing comedic master due to the aforementioned Vicky Cristina Barcelona indicating a return to form and the upcoming You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger garnering generally favourable reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He is also at work on his next venture, Midnight in Paris which, if the impressive cast and fresh setting are anything to go by, will be a commendable affair. For now we have Allen’s current cinematic effort, which I will now review…
(Woody Allen, 2009, USA)
Whatever Works represents Woody Allen’s 2009 cinematic entry (although released a year later here in the UK) and is the directors thirty ninth feature film. Based on a screenplay Allen wrote (and subsequently shelved) in the seventies with Zero Mostel in mind and returning once again to his beloved New York City, the film focuses on yet another extension of Allen’s characteristically Jewish, neurotic persona, now played by TV’s Larry David.
David plays ageing curmudgeon and self-described genius Boris Yelnikoff, a recently divorced, misanthropic, nearly-Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist who has abandoned his fading career in favour of pursuing his dissection of life’s everlasting futilities. Boris spends his days vocally berating guiltless children, alienating friends with his pessimistically philosophical psychobabble and generally walking the streets of New York with an ill-tempered (and post-suicide attempted) limp in his begrudging step. Breaking the fourth wall whenever he wishes to share his disparaging wisdom, Boris utters lines such as “I’m not a likeable guy”, directly informing the audience that the world we live in is a disappointing place filled with “cretins” and “inchworms”.
In short, what he lacks is compassion for the human race, which is set to change come the arrival of Rachel Wood’s innocently vibrant Melody St Ann Celestine, a 21 year old runaway beauty queen from Mississippi, who Boris encounters sleeping rough below his drab Little Italy apartment. Though initially apprehensive, Boris allows Melody to stay purely on a short term basis, which is a rare act of kindness on his part. Days become weeks, weeks become months and after a year, the two enter into a somewhat content marriage, with Boris preying on Melody’s naively impressionable mind and Melody falling cheerfully in love with a man 40 years her senior. She hangs on his every word, believing every observation which spews from his negative mouth while he develops an unlikely sense of warmth and reliance, which is a scarce rapport he has with the human beings he has so isolated himself away from.
Their peculiar partnership prompts the arrival of Melody’s devoutly Christian mother (Clarkson) who initially spurns the relationship and sticks around in New York, only to warm to the surroundings, shed her southern belle persona and pursue a long-suppressed photography career, whilst delving into a tender Ménage à trois with two supportably artistic men and searching for a better suitor for her misguided daughter. Melody’s father also arrives on the scene and immediately gains a personal revelation which contrasts with his profoundly conservative beliefs. These plot strands all build to a whimsical dénouement which sheds light on Allen’s belief that one should be content with whatever makes you happy, whatever life you choose to lead, whatever works.
The trustworthy pairing of Woody Allen and Larry David has been a long time coming, and the two work well together. Although David had bit parts in two of Allen’s previous films (Radio Days and New York Stories) here he gets the centre stage, skilfully channelling Allen’s cantankerously lethargic persona in a role which, although meant for Mostel, could have easily been played by Allen had he come out of acting retirement. However, David injects the role with a rougher edge which Allen may have failed to portray given the warm quality he brings to his acting. Though not a far stretch from his scathingly neurotic depiction (of himself) in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David manages to be a very watchable screen presence who manages to pull off a leading role with great charisma.
Sexuality is not the focal point of Allen’s agenda; he is instead concerned with the portrayal of the unlikely relationship between the two protagonists and it is dealt with with maturity and a sense of subtlety, with the forty something age gap never becoming an off-putting or distracting entity. This is reminiscent of Manhattan, where Allen’s 42 year old character enters into a bittersweet relationship with a 17 year old girl, who turns out to be a more stable romantic partner than the other women he dates of his age. This is a common theme in (and out) of Allen’s movies and it is always handled well and never creepy. Allen has great respect for women, and it shows. As per usual, supporting characters are richly observed and ably portrayed, especially the females, who are fronted by a likeable performance from Rachel Wood and a comically zany one from the dependably excellent Patricia Clarkson.
Unfortunately amongst all the redeeming qualities, Whatever Works is a mediocre film which fizzles out in its second half, becoming too wrapped up in oncoming plot devices which become increasingly shallow and rather silly. It is also riddled with flaws, ranging from poorly acted characters (Melody’s English admirer Randy is laughable), distracting audience addressing which feel out of place and occasionally slow character progression, with Boris’s eventual change of heart coming too late in the game to generate a plausible conclusion to his character. Though Allen proves once again that he is at his best when offering up new observations about mortality and self-satisfaction, the plot strings are tied up a little too easily come the film’s contented conclusion.
Although Whatever Works is a distinctive step-up for the director, it can’t escape the feeling of being a minor work from a once-great director. The script contains the usual amount of great dialogue and witty one liners, yet it is at times lazy, half-hearted and slightly dated, bearing in mind it was written more than thirty years ago. A far cry from the qualities of the director in his prime, Whatever Works is nevertheless entertainingly imperfect and undeniably throw-away, much like Allen’s films of late. It is not awful, it’s just acceptable.
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, Spain/USA: The Weinstein Company.
- Manhattan, 1979. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, USA: Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions.
- Annie Hall, 1977. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, USA: Rollins-Joffe Productions.
- Cassandra’s Dream, 2007. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, USA: Iberville Productions.
- Math Point, 2005. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, UK: BBC Films.
- The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, USA: DreamWorks SKG.
- Scoop, 2006. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, UK: BBC Films.
- You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, 2010. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, USA: Mediapro.
- Whatever Works, 2009. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen, USA: Sony Pictures Classics.
- Curb Your Enthusiasm, 2000. [TV Show] USA: HBO Films.