Release Date: June 19
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cinematographer: Harris Savides
Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel
Wood, Patricia Clarkson
Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures
Classics, 92 mins.
Throwaway comedy from Woody Allen still
has funny jokes
Woody Allen's yearly release schedule
has produced both gems and clunkers, and his latest is certainly in
the lesser bunch. So this may seem like a strange time to realize
that I've developed a grudging respect for Allen and his methods.
While some reviewers may observe that two of every three jokes fall
flat, I'm a little bit amazed that Allen would toss that one good
third into such a sloppy story, like a fistful of prized truffles
whisked quickly into a pan of Tuna Helper.
While other artists might gather jokes
and ideas over a longer period, prune the duds, and wait for a
critical mass, Allen seems to use an alarm clock to tell him when to
send his latest draft from the typewriter to the actors. But a
lackluster Allen film, because it's a momentary and fleeting snapshot
of the filmmaker's microscopic progress since his last outing, just
underscores what a happy, equally fleeting occurrence the good ones
are. He follows the schedule of a craftsman but experiences the
intermittent flash of an artist, and while the steady appearance of
the former frustrates those who are hoping for the latter, as a
process it works. It works for Bob Dylan, it works for Woody Allen.
And as the title says, whatever works.
This year, Larry David and Evan Rachel
Wood are Boris and Melodie, an unlikely October-April couple. He's a
neurotic hypochondriac and self-proclaimed genius Scrooge who
punctuates his sentences with "imbecile" and "spare
me". And she's the aforementioned imbecile. She wanders into his
life like a lost puppy, appearing outside his apartment asking for
money and hailing, it seems, from some long lost rural South. But
she's sweet, pretty, impressionable, and best of all, reverent toward
the genius—so they hook up. From Boris’ perspective, once he
warms to her, they make a pretty great couple. He compares her to the
"idiot" Benjy from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and
she offers a vacant non-response, as if he just smiled at the
horizon. It’s a win-win.
Boris is the stand-in for Woody Allen,
and his rants at the "inchworms" that surround him are
often funny, even though they're hampered by David's perpetual smirk.
With raised eyebrows, he seems more tickled than exasperated to be
speaking Allen's exasperating dialogue. I like David, but it's hard
not to imagine—and prefer—the Woody Allen of two decades ago
playing the role, or even Jason Alexander, who was David's alter-ego
But that very interplay of images from
the past and present, from life and fiction, or from this fiction and
some previous fiction, is an odd, compelling, and consistent part of
Allen's films. The quality fluctuates but the obsessions don't. Even
in a throwaway obligation like Whatever Works, Allen's personal life
as we know it provides the source material (just as David's does for
his TV shows), and he seems ever willing to crack open his persona,
to poke fun at the aging man's fantasy that we could easily and
lazily assume is his own. A close-up of David’s serious face late
in the film is the one tender turn, mostly because Boris seems to be
thinking something other than what he’s saying.
When Melodie's mother (Patricia
Clarkson) ventures north in search of her daughter, she discovers
that Melodie is "living like a sharecropper," revealing
another strange corner of Allen's universe. It's one thing to
disparage religious, right-wing Southern rubes but it’s another to
transport them from decades past—when "sharecropper"
still had bite, when the local beauty pageant had more appeal than
American Idol—drop them into New York, and pretend that the magic
of urban sophistication can bring out their freer, sexier selves. The
hyper caricatures and the casual inaccuracies shift the point of the
satire away from the rubes and toward the sophisticates, who
myopically believe in New York as the center of the universe, Allen
himself among them.
Nubile Melodie eventually captures more
eyes than just the two in Boris' head. She says she's pretty sure
it's mathematically impossible for her to be in two dreams at once,
but oh, how wrong she is. Like the myriad dreams in which the girl
walks, Allen's film is a merged picture of overlapping fantasies, and
the competing ideas don't altogether harmonize. But it’s all
disposable, and the next one will start with a fresh page, a clean
take on the same preoccupations. And given the slapdash nature of
Whatever Works, that's surely a good thing.