Woody Allen recently told English newspaper The Telegraph how to pick his good films from his bad. “I never title a movie until it’s finished because if I look at the film and it’s no good I don’t like to give it an aggressive title. I give it what I call one of my hiding titles – the kind of title that is low-key and promises nothing, so people are less disappointed by it.” Therefore, the writer/director must not be too pleased with his latest effort, the title of which is about the verbal equivalent of a half-hearted shrug. A shame really, because Whatever Works is a light-hearted farce that registers as one of Allen’s better films from this decade. I shudder to think what his opinion is of Anything Else.
Although the seventy-three year old Allen no longer casts himself as the romantic lead in his movies, he still can’t help writing the ‘Woody Allen character’ into his screenplays. This decade alone the character played by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Scarlett Johansson (Scoop), Will Ferrell (Melinda and Melinda), and, ahem, Jason Biggs (Anything Else). Each is nervous, neurotic and unlucky in love (or at the very least, continually troubled by it). For Whatever Works, the baton has been passed on to Larry David, that other neurotic, Jewish New Yorker in a constant state of puzzlement over social mores. David stars as Boris Yelnikoff, an argumentative ‘genius’ who was once considered for a Nobel Prize, which he believes gives him life-long permission to dismiss everyone he meets as an imbecile. For the most part, he’s probably right. His favourite target are those that believe in God and those that believe in love; two fantastical concepts that are in his opinion both highly illogical and endlessly idiotic.
Boris’ idyllic isolation is disrupted by a young vagrant named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachael Wood), a Louisiana native whose name is only half as beautiful as the rest of her. Melodie has run away from her God-fearing, recently separated parents, played by the always brilliant Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. In a moment of rare compassion, Boris invites the homeless girl into his apartment for a quick meal. He spends the evening berating the sweet-natured and impressionable Melodie for her stupidity and naiveté. However, she abides his abrasive personality and even encourages it. Before Boris even realises, the two of them are living together in a semi-romantic relationship that, believe it or not, actually works.
Larry David is surprisingly capable in his first leading role in a feature film. As fans of his show Curb Your Enthusiasm already know, the man is endlessly watchable, even in the most cringe-worthy of moments. The heart of the film belongs to Wood, Clarkson and Begley Jr., and they provide the biggest laughs. Watching their Southern-charm slowly transformed (corrupted?) by the emotional/artistic/erotic flavours of New York City is a typical Allen-esque treat.
Whatever Works is delightful; there is no denying it. However, it has its problems, which is to be expected from Woody Allen, who despite his impressive oeuvre is also one of the most hit-and-miss directors working today. Larry David as the ‘Woody Allen character’ should be a perfect fit, but there is often a danger in trying to combine two iconic personas in the one role. The ‘Larry David-character’ is almost as identifiably singular as the ‘Woody Allen-character’, and seeing Woody’s tightly-scripted lines coming out of master-improviser David’s mouth never feels natural. Early in the film, Boris laments the failure of his first marriage by claiming that their relationship ‘made sense on paper’. In a similar way, perhaps Allen and David’s pairing is too logical to work.
At times, the film feels both over-performed and under-written. The actors recite Allen’s lines like Gospel (which to most performers, I’m sure they are). However, in their slavish dedication to his prose, the cast forego genuine human interaction. Films like Manhattan and Annie Hall may sound like they were written by Woody Allen, but they still felt real. Whatever Works often feels like an early draft of another, better film. And I have a theory that it indeed might be. Hear me out on this.
Whatever Works was originally written by Allen back in the early 1970s, during which time he had intended for the legendary Zero Mostel to star as Boris. However, Allen shelved the script following Mostel’s death in 1977, only to dust it off thirty years later with Larry David as leading man. Annie Hall, the film that earnt Allen Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture, was released in 1977. Prior to that film, he had only written and directed offbeat comedies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and Sleeper. Is it possible that Annie Hall is quite simply the highly evolved child of the Whatever Works screenplay? The two films certainly share similar elements. For instance, the protagonist repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience while his female love interest is flighty and quirky. The most striking similarities however lie in the recurring themes such as the chaos of love and the fear of settling. Sure, there are plenty of noteworthy differences between the two films, but it’s hard to ignore the possibility that Annie Hall was highly inspired by this movie. The difference is, whatever worked in this film he had already used to better effect in Annie Hall.
If this theory is true (and it very well might not be), then Whatever Works is sure to elicit strong responses from Woody Allen fans. While the film is highly enjoyable, it seems to go out of its way to remind the audience of Allen’s earlier, more impressive pictures. And when placed up against an Annie Hall or a Manhattan, the film cannot compete. However, if examined on its own terms, the film is unlikely to disappoint. At the beginning of this review I suggested Allen himself may be unhappy with Whatever Works; understandable considering what the legendary filmmaker knows he can be capable of. Thankfully, the rest of us don’t have to carry the burden of his immense talent. We can acknowledge that even the most minor Woody Allen film is still major cinema.