By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
Has old age turned Woody Allen into an optimist? Whatever Works, Allen’s first movie in five years set in New York City, is also among his most upbeat and hopeful, even though the story centers on a protagonist who addresses the audience early on to say “Let me tell you right now: I’m not a likable guy.”
His name is Boris Yelnikoff. He’s a genius physicist who was ”almost” nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and he has a permanent limp after trying to commit suicide by jumping out a window decades earlier after realizing that although he and his wife were a perfect match on paper, “life isn’t on paper.”
Boris is another of Allen’s cosmic kvetchers, a nihilistic misanthrope who believes ”people make life so much worse than it has to be.” This is a role Allen would have played at one time (although he actually wrote it for Zero Mostel 30 years ago), but he has wisely handed the part over to Larry David, who essentially turns Boris into a meaner, more contemptuous version of his Curb Your Enthusiasm persona.
Boris, who dropped out of academia after his suicide attempt and lives in a ramshackle apartment in Chinatown, makes a living teaching kids how to play chess, although mostly he just insults them for being brainless inchworms. David’s acerbic crankiness, which works in 30-minute spurts on TV, doesn’t carry over quite so well to a feature-length movie: Boris’ relentless negativity wears you out after a while, but it’s supposed to, and although David doesn’t deliver a performance so much as he delivers shtick, the character is really just a stand-in for Allen anyway, who’s the star of all his movies, regardless of whether he appears in them.
The plot of Whatever Works, which relates what happens when Boris reluctantly takes in a runaway teenager from Mississippi (Evan Rachel Wood) who gives new dimension to the word dumb, isn’t the movie’s strong suit, although Allen doles out a couple of effective twists that enliven the story whenever tedium is about to set in.
What makes Whatever Works so enjoyable, aside from the unusually high number of effective one-liners the script contains (this is Allen’s funniest movie since Mighty Aphrodite), are its supporting characters, all of whom take over stretches of the movie, giving us a much-needed break from Boris’ cantankerous yammerings. Much of the film, which was shot by cinematographer Harris Savides (Elephant, Zodiac), consists of long, static takes that let us savor the performances.
Wood, who has never looked lovelier, takes what could have been an exceedingly annoying character — an impossibly stupid girl who is oblivious to the point of idiocy — and finds the endearing charm within her. You can see why, despite all odds, she breaks through Boris’ bitter shell. As her parents, Ed Begley Jr. and, particularly, Patricia Clarkson bring verve and energy to their Southern stereotypes, filling out a surprisingly effective ensemble. Its collective appeal sneaks up on you.
Whatever Works has been taken to task by some critics for being lazy and rote, especially since it’s based on a trunk script. But when Allen wrote the picture is irrelevant. What matters is how the finished film turned out, and although Whatever Works can’t compare to the sophistication and wit of vintage Allen such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, it is still a drastic improvement on the wan, lifeless comedies (Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda) Allen was cranking out before his European exile.
Plus, as a bonus, the picture sends you home happier than you were when you came in. ”In the end, the romantic aspirations of our youth are reduced to whatever works,” Boris laments about the compromises we make in life. But Allen argues that those compromises can yield unexpected rewards.
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Henry Cavill, Ed Begley Jr.
Writer-director: Woody Allen.
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.