An aging, persnickety, neurotic, intellectual hypochondriac wins the heart of a beautiful teenage girl to the tune of vintage jazz in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works. Go figure, right? It’s pretty much what you’d expect from the writer-director’s 39th feature film, which cannot objectively be called a good movie. For starters, it requires a seriously indulgent suspension of disbelief and a forgiving attitude toward an aggressively nihilistic and insulting leading character. Still, Allen apologists like myself will feel some of the old magic in Woody’s verbal jazz, which seems more sprightly than in other recent Allen comedies. And after a string of five Europe-set films, Woody's back on home turf, shooting New York with the help of Gus Van Sant's go-to cinematographer Harris Savides.
That may be because the bones of Whatever Works were written in the 1970s, with Allen’s The Front co-star Zero Mostel in mind for the lead. Now it’s Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David convincingly kvetching to the audience (“Let me tell you right off,” he warns. “I’m not a likeable guy”). As Boris Yellnikoff, retired professor of Quantum Mechanics, David gets a number of inspired misanthropic rants. In his own mind, anyway, Boris is superior and underappreciated (having been passed over for a Nobel Prize), reduced to teaching kids chess and haranguing them for their idiocy. “I’m a man with a huge worldview,” he says. “I’m surrounded by microbes.” To Boris, humanity is fundamentally indecent and thoughtless. Long since accustomed to his mein, Boris's friends at neighborhood Caffe Vivaldi (including Michael McKean) pay him no mind--that is, until he insists an audience is watching and limps off to talk to us (the limp serves as constant reminder of Boris' failed suicide attempt).
The comfortably withdrawn divorcé gets thrown for a loop when he grudgingly invites hungry teen runaway Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, forty years David’s junior) into his downtown New York apartment for a much-needed nosh (squalid set design courtesy of ye olde Allen production designer Santo Loquasto). Soon he's taking her to Grant's Tomb (no, she doesn't ask who's buried there), and she's becoming strangely smitten with her curmudgeonly host. The verbally abusive Boris shows the naïve girl about as much regard as he would a dog, repeatedly calling her stupid--which, regrettably, she is--and encouraging her to go home to Mississippi, but like a stray animal, she won’t leave. Allen recognizes the lack of political correctness has a bracing quality. Boris says what he thinks, more or less; it's the more and less that emotionally hamper him.
Of course, Melody’s sunniness brings out the dormant best in Boris, who slowly reawakens to the idea of a loving relationship, if nothing else (to the notion that God’s eye is on the sparrow, Boris replies, “I pity the sparrow”). She soothes him during his existential panic attacks (night sweats and choruses of "The horror, the horror...") and indulges his speechifying and old-fashioned tastes for salves like Beethoven and Fred Astaire movies. What Melody sees in Boris is less apparent. “I don’t like normal, healthy men. I like you,” she insists. But that doesn't stop the healthy men--including Henry Cavill and John Gallagher Jr. (Tony winner for Spring Awakening)--from trying. At the least, Allen's script is eminently quotable, a big plus in today’s buffet of comedy pabulum.
Part of Boris’ worldview seems to be to excuse the movie in which he stars. Try not to overthink it, Allen seems to say: just enjoy it. That’s good advice, but the self-referential comment “Sometimes a cliché is the best way to make one’s point” doesn’t make Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. any more palatable as cartoon fundamentalist Christians forced out of their comfort zone and into Bohemian New York (it's a photo finish for whether the characters are overplayed or overwritten in their situation comedy); Wood fares better nailing the timing with Allen's familiar sweet-but-dumb girl archetype. The film’s biggest problem is its thematic flimsiness over contradictory philosophies: life is meaningless, so hey, live and let live, but complain a lot, too. Just remember you're talking to the proprietor of GrouchoReviews. With his opening credit song selection, Woody had me at "Hello, I Must Be Going."
[This review first appeared, in shorter form, in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Woody Allen fans should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Whatever Works on home video: the movie and little else. In this case, Sony includes the film's Trailer, but in keeping with Allen's no-frills approach and refusal to participate in bonus features, viewers shouldn't expect commentary, featurettes, or unseen footage.
So the film's the thing, and happily the A/V is in good hands with Sony. Allen likes his film grain, and the transfer for Whatever Works retains the natural look familiar to anyone who saw the film in theaters. Understand that the image isn't overly grainy, but just right, and the frequent use of sunny location photography helps the picture to shine. Detail and depth are exceptional, contrast is spot-on, and colors are rich (a little too rich, perhaps, given the ruddy skin tones).
The big surprise here is that Allen gets what I believe to be his first DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Typically, Allen's films are presented in mono or, at most, stereo, but this multi-channel mix at least sends audio through all the speakers. It doesn't do much more than that: since Allen doesn't design his films with surround effects in mind, there's little in the way of immersive ambience. Still, you'll never hear Whatever Works sounding better than this: the song selections sound peppy and the dialogue is, crucially, clear.
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