Nobody does malcontent like Larry David. Woody Allen manages to rediscover his comedic voice by retooling a script older than me and fountaining his bitterness through the Seinfeld scribe. Funny Woody Allen is infinitely better than mopey, introspective, overdramatic Woody Allen. Whatever Works is basically a brilliant philosophy couched in a rather trite parlour comedy. It feels almost like an adapted stage production, with extremely broad characterizations and convenient romantic wrap-ups. It’s hard to believe that this kind of pseudo happily-ever-after love story comes from the man who brought us Annie Hall. While the rest of the cast glimmers, with scenery chewing glee as either Southern Baptist Cracker or the ever-popular Artsy New York Jew, it is truly Larry David’s crotchety intellectual who makes this film worth watching. So much so that when the film takes its focus off the misanthrope and follows the other characters, interest quickly wanes. But whatever its flaws, it works, and hopefully means Allen’s finally given up his blue period for a few laughs in the twilight of his career.
Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a retired quantum physicist married to a beautiful and successful woman, wakes up in the middle of the night horrified by the overwhelming pointlessness of life and walks out the window of his apartment. He doesn’t die, hitting the canopy instead and forcing David to trod through the rest of the film with a rather ridiculously Frankenstein-as-performed-by-a-toddler limp. With it is born his new life philosophy: Life’s so miserable and pointless that you should do whatever you can to find or give happiness to others. It’s kind of a strange philosophy coming from a man who spends most of his time telling people how stupid and cretinous they are. Now a children’s chess teacher, Boris spends most of his time spewing insults and informing others of their status as “inchworms” and “microbes”.
Enter Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), fresh off the turnip truck from Bumblescum, Mississippi. Melodie’s not exactly a braintrust, kind of the ditzier, bottle blonde cousin to Sookie Stackhouse. Inexplicably — which is kind of the buzzword for this ridiculofable — Boris takes her in off the street and houses her. A few days turns into a few months, where Boris’s constant barrage of slurs and pessimism begin to infuse with her natural perky buoyancy to become a jaded beam of sunshine whose confounded by the world full of idiots around her. So naturally, Boris and Melodie marry.
Bibbidyboppidymethusalfuck?! Yeah, even Boris — who spends a lot of the film Buellering monologues to the camera (though I’m sure some neurotic film buff will point out that Allen did it first) — can’t explain why. And so Melodie becomes a part of surly Boris’s routine, since Boris isn’t one to change his miserilou mannerisms. Then the film becomes a strange romantic coupling as one after the other Melodie’s parents arrive and become radically morphed by the almighty cultural bastion of New York. Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) arrives first, instantly takes a hating to old Boris, and attempts to rescue her daughter by pairing her up with literally the first pretty Brit that saunters by, Randy Lee James (Henry Cavill). John (Ed Begley, Jr.) arrives almost at the end of the film, mostly to lisp and gawk in a shudderworthy drawl while spouting Baptismal font like a twice-bitten snakehandler.
It’s difficult to put into words my displeasure with the film’s third act without spoilerizing everything. What started as a character study about a fascinatingly pissy old fart gets nonplussedly buttfucked by Tennessee Williams’ version of a parlour play. The problem is twofold. First, that Boris takes the sudden turn of event with a shrug, and that we’re supposed to be content with this as an audience. Then again, that’s the message of the film, with a heavy double thumb dose of whatever just let life happen and be happy when you can. The second problem is that when the focus of the film turns from Boris, it’s not nearly as interesting. Everyone’s spectacularly Boratic in their characters, particularly Evan Rachel Wood, who surprised the hell out of me with her versatility and spunk. Then again, if you can say “I’m dating Marilyn Manson and no, it isn’t 1999” with a straight face, you’re already Oscarworthy.
The entire piece feels dated and formulaic, which makes sense since Allen wrote it in 1977 for Zero Mostel, and then shelved it. It wisely stayed shelved as Allen decided to have his own May-December fling with his girlfriend’s adopted daughter, Soon Yi. (Relax, I already promised not to make any Jews love to eat Chinese jokes.) Despite punching it up with some late-night Lenologue commentary on Viagra and Omega-3s, the bones of the project still feel incredibly community theater. There’s a love for everyone at the end of the film. And while it’s amusing and there are a couple titterous one-liners, it’s nothing to write home about. Larry David pretty much steals the show, as a less Costanzan or even Curbyourenthusiastic version of himself. It’s Larry David playing an angry Woody Allen, who would have come off as trying to send back soup with an outraged apology had he played it himself. It’s worth watching the first few minutes if only for David, but it crumbles like matzoh towards the end.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.