After 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, there were rumblings among the faithfuls that follow Woody Allen’s every move that the master had lost touch with the New York, that the film felt more like real estate porn, they decried, than an actual New York story. We want the old Woody back, they decried, we want to be enchanted by the greatest city in the world yet again! Following a four film love affair with Europe, Mr. Allen returns home to the big apple, but not to quell the masses. With _Whatever Works _he comes at us swinging with a very clear message: that we should shut the hell up and let him be.
The film opens with Boris Yellnikoff, a surly retired physicist played byLarry David, sitting with a group of friends, prattling off some choice Woody Allen favorites: the meaninglessness of life, the inherent evil within people, the realization that everyone on earth is an idiot, and so on and so on. To wow the die-hards even more, Boris stands up and directly addresses the audience, launching into a monologue that feels mimeographed right out of Annie Hall. Stylistically I have no problems with the way this fourth wall breakage happens, it’s actually quite funny. The trouble is with our lead actor. When Woody himself bares his soul in his 1977 Oscar-winner, there is an emotional purity in his words; when Larry David does it today, he is trying to become something he is not, an actor.
One stormy night, Boris finds a tight little coed, played with outdated southern panache by Evan Rachel Wood, on his doorstep. Taking pity on her, he lets her sleep on the couch, for a night, a week, a month, etc. Her name is Melodie St. Ann Celestine, about as goyishe a name as Yellnikoff is shtetl- born, and that’s the point. We have a caricature of the New York communist self-hating Jew scientist and the wide-eyed dumb as dirt southern belle hard- body thrown into the soup together. Hilarity would have to follow, yes?
Not exactly. As I touched on earlier, most of the trouble is with Mr. David. He is a writer and producer whose comdic worth is on par with Woody’s. He has made a name mainly by playing himself, a creative choice borne out of the realization that he is not an actor. In his HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, this is all part of the joke. Here, it feels wholly out of place.
The problems may start with our star, but they don’t end there. Cinematographer Harris Savides and editor Alisa Lepselter , of course under the tutelage of their director, have dealt this film a one two punch by showing us a great deal of the frame and holding each shot longer than necessary. This is extremely common in Woody Allen films, especially ones as theatrical as Whatever Works, but it puts an incredible onus on our actors. Ms. Wood seems to have spent so much time toning her accent and her abs that she forgot about destination. She is lost in that massive frame. Thank goodness Patricia Clarkson comes along to play her mother, Marietta. Unlike her young counterpart, Ms. Clarkson slips into the N’Orleans mentality and lights up the screen; she is larger than life in this role. Also of note is the always hilarious Ed Begley Jr. who builds one of the most interesting characters in the film with very little screen time.
Whatever Works feels dated, slow and hackneyed. If there is a lesson to be learned, and I fully believe this is the film’s intention, it is that the New York City of yore (the 1970s and 1980s) is gone and has been replaced with something glitzier. Gotham is no longer a place where huddled masses of artisans, architects and other right-brain types can commingle on a pittance a day. These days you need capital, both monetarily and fashionably, to stay afloat in this town.
Woody Allen is breaking our reverie, this so-called love-affair with Manhattan that audiences are obsessed with. When you ask the wrong questions, he is telling us, you will get a lame answer. Why don’t you make films like you used to, Woody? Because they don’t work anymore, idiots. It may seem like intellectual apologism to say that Woody has a message in this malformed film, but I think the writing is as clear as day. He is a cinematic master who continues to grow with every film he makes (despite popular belief, he has never had a slow period), so just leave him be to make the films he wants, wherever they may be.