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Review: Whatever Works

Look on Works and despair
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 23, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Whatever Works

Whatever Works | Written and Directed by Woody Allen | with Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Michael McKean, Henry Cavill, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Hecht, Carolyn McCormick, and Christopher Evan Welch | Sony Classics | 92 minutes
It happens to everyone: getting old means getting more annoying. Those endearing little quirks degenerate into insufferable pathologies, the funny stories become less funny with repetition, and in general the same old self-depreciating ironies and obsessive-compulsive hedges against mortality stop working. Whatever Works is old. Really old — it's a screenplay Woody Allen wrote three decades ago and never produced. Perhaps desperate for material, he resurrects it now, long after it's been made redundant by May-December romantic comedies like his own Manhattan. And it has not aged well.

His persona long ago tainted by scandal, Allen has come to rely on stand-ins for himself. Here the Allen manqué is Larry David, and the Curb Your Enthusiasm crank works hard from the get-go to out-curmudgeon the original. Playing misanthropic New Yorker Boris Yellnikoff, he fulminates against organized religion, rednecks (he's like a shock jock from the left, and as appealing), romantic love, human nature, and, quoting Conrad, "the horror" of existence.

The gimmick this time is that chestnut of breaking the fourth wall: he turns to the camera and addresses the movie audience. I don't think many will feel privileged by the attention. Although Allen tries to distance himself from Boris's neurotic megalomania and self-pity, the character wallows wearily in all-too-familiar cradle-robbing lechery, self-aggrandizing self-loathing, hypochondria, and middlebrow namedropping and snobbery. Not someone you want to spend 90 minutes with.

After a failed career as a physicist (he'd have won a Nobel Prize if not for the night terrors), a failed marriage (she tired of his "sophomoric tirades"), and a failed suicide attempt, Boris now teaches chess to children in the park. Then Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, transcending the material), a low-rent Holly Golightly, appears on his doorstep. She's a runaway from the South who, as Boris iterates, is ignorant, ingenuous, and stupid (though he does concede that she might be pretty). She inserts herself into Boris's apartment and life and — what a twist! — falls in love with him.

With his hatred of sex, romance, and people in general, his tiresome proclamations that he's a genius among "microbes," his penchant for endearments like "simpleton" and "inchworm," what girl could resist? Especially one as benighted as Melodie, who doesn't even know it's a joke when Boris says he played for the Yankees.

Fortunately, Allen is funnier about parents than about girlfriends, so when Melodie's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), shows up, the movie comes alive. Otherwise, the shtick is tired and the wisdom second-hand, ranging from the platitude of the title to the nihilist terror of existentialism to the greeting-card consolations of kismet. Sometimes clichés are the only way to get your point across, as Boris concedes when Melodie catches him using one. And sometimes they just show that you've got nothing to say.

Parroting Boris, Melodie tells a worshipper that his prayers are useless, that "there's no one out there." This parallels Boris's own monologues to the movie audience, whom he alone among the characters can see. This is, he says, the key to his genius, that he can "see the big picture." That might have been true once upon a time. Now Allen's desperation is as futile as that of any holy roller, and just as likely to fall on deaf ears.

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