July 01, 2009

Whatever Works

You remind me of my stepdaughter. Will you marry me?

Grade: D –

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, and Ed Begley Jr.

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

When will Woody Allen stop subjecting us to cinematic vehicles used to justify marrying his twenty-something stepdaughter? Yes, I know Allen supposedly wrote the screenplay for Whatever Works in the 1970s, and, indeed, its hoary air reeks of the bottom of the musty desk drawer that coughed up this misanthropic mistake. But, the story of an older man who finds himself in a May-December relationship with a comely ingénue he finds literally camped out on his stoop oozes with self-absorbed psychoanalysis.

If you ever wondered about the cosmic neuroticism that would emerge if Larry David were cast in a Woody Allen film, then Whatever Works is your answer. David plays Boris Yelnikoff, the standard-issue Allen stand-in, who ambles around Greenwich Village on a bum leg injured during a failed suicide attempt, spouting off random invectives against virtually everything and everyone, from health-conscious diets to religious zealots, from fear of terrorism to the young children to whom he futilely tries to teach chess. He boorishly peppers his vocabulary by incessantly labeling his intellectual inferiors “morons,” “cretins,” and “inchworms.” He even regularly breaks the fourth wall, wondering aloud why we, the audience, would bother buying tickets to watch a movie about his sad, uninteresting life story. Only the legion of Allen apologists would disagree.

Enter Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a NYC newcomer and former Southern beauty pageant queen with no money or board. Melodie charms her way into Boris’ brownstone and, eventually, his hardened heart. They eventually marry (although, curiously, Allen never captures a single moment of romantic intimacy between them, even a kiss), much to the chagrin of Melodie’s estranged, fundamentalist parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.).

Allen’s humorless, often unwatchable homage to secular humanism plays like bad community theater. The acerbic wit and browbeaten charm David embodies in Curb Your Enthusiasm turns dissonant in Allen’s hands. Wood occasionally flashes her innate acumen, but she suffers from a simplistic role and a hackneyed accent that sounds like something straight out of an episode of Hee Haw. Indeed, Boris/Allen’s constant barrage against Southerners is both artless and elitist. (At some one, Marietta tells Melodie she’s “living like a sharecropper.”)

From atop Allen’s lofty intellectual perch, a taste of Greenwich Village is all that is required to save Melodie and family from their backward, moralistic ways. Marietta dons a beret, finds her inner artiste, and carries on an open ménage à trois with two men. John, meanwhile, undergoes a ludicrous sexual awakening, realizing over drinks in a bar – and with virtually no sense of emotional turmoil – that he is homosexual. He then launches into a relationship with the first gay guy he meets (a slapdash sequence that reveals the elemental underpinning beneath Allen’s ostensible high-mindedness).

“Whatever works” is Boris’ credo about life and the search for happiness. To Allen’s ham-fisted handiwork, the only appropriate response is “whatever…”

Neil Morris

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