© Wild Bunch/Central Film GmbH

Whatever Works
U.S.A./France 2009

Opening 3 Dec 2009

Directed by: Woody Allen
Writing credits: Woody Allen
Principal actors: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Adam Brooks

Woody Allen is back to his roots (after four films in Europe), back to the Manhattan skyline, and we are back to watching neurotic people in a funny if somewhat overloaded, twisted story of Whatever Works. The wonderful Larry David (Seinfeld; Curb Your Enthusiasm) takes the lead as a grumpy and cynical old man fitting perfectly into the “Woody Allen role.” He is the cantankerous misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff, the snuffed genius, having survived a suicide attempt. In time he will survive his second one as well. But first he lets the pretty, but homeless, Southern maiden Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) sleep on his couch. He teaches her his pessimistic ways, and the unlikely pair gets married. It works until Melodie’s God-fearing and church-going mother (Patricia Clarkson) appears on the doorstep. She does not like Boris, but she likes his friends and soon drops her Southern attitude for a ménage à trois.

Melodie’s father (Ed Begley, Jr.) also knocks on the door, but caustic Boris sends him off to the next pub. There, he promptly finds his mate and discovers his homosexuality. Meanwhile, old Boris is facing a real crisis when Melodie falls in love with a young and handsome man. Another suicide attempt is called for, landing him on top of his third wife-to-be. On New Year’s Eve the extended family celebrates a happy end with fireworks over Manhattan.

Despite the predictable development of the story, it is an amusing comedy to watch. There are some hilariously bizarre moments. Boris’ monologue, when addressing the audience, is clever and entertaining with typical Woody Allen one-liners. Even when poking fun at human nature, his up-to-date remarks are passionate. I am not sure if the leading ladies (Wood, Clarkson) were supposed to be a caricature of their characters by acting in the style of a TV sit-com. But “whatever works…” (Birgit Schrumpf)

Second Opinion

Those two words perfectly describe the theme of this hilarious Manhattan relationship film written and directed by Woody Allen (stating he himself is an exception to the thesis, “With me, it’s whatever doesn’t work.”)

The perpetual heavy-duty pessimist, gray-haired genius Boris (Larry David), is confronted at his downtown doorstep by Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), who begs him to let her come in out of the rain. She is a beautiful runaway from Mississippi, forty-plus years his junior. Boris considers her a nitwit (as he does most people) but she decides to stay (not many other options). Eventually they become used to each other and marry.

The relationships around them are all affected. Melodie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) comes for an unannounced visit and, surviving the literal shock of her daughter’s new situation, morphs from a genteel southern lady/housewife into the toast of the New York art scene. Boris’s buddies, Melodie’s dad and everyone’s love interests complicate, then correct the picture with the diverse choices they make to seek happiness.

Initially written for Zero Mostel in the role of Boris, Allen shelved the project when Mostel died; he recently returned to it with a well-chosen Larry David, producer of the Seinfeld TV series and now portraying a somewhat similar character on TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in the main role. Boris is a great part, with many fun soliloquies, the only character to speak directly to the audience, emphasizing his genius (the only one acknowledging being watched) and his loneliness. (Nancy Tilitz)

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