Monday, June 22, 2009

Film Review: "Whatever Works"...Or Doesn't

Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" rapidly becomes implausible. A cranky, misanthropic, previously respectable physicist, Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David), is disenchanted with his beautiful and brainy wife. He leaves his well appointed Manhattan apartment for a dump downtown and takes up teaching chess to youngsters whom he berates. He finds a perky, small town Southern girl, a runaway named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), on his doorstep and takes her in. Despite his comments on her lack of intelligence, she falls in love with him and they get married.

How is it possible for a vivacious young woman to fall in love with a man who's not only old enough to be her grandfather, but who is also a constant kvetcher whom she serves as a caretaker and who comments frequently on her lack of intelligence? Boris pontificates on the familiar Allen themes of a meaningless, godless universe, but turns it up a few notches with rants on the world's pain and cruelty and the fact that most of his fellow humans are mindless "inchworms."

So besides the implausibility, there's the fact that the main character is completely unsympathetic. While Allen's main characters in such classics as "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" were plagued by the same existential doubts, they did not couple this brooding with a tiresome disparagement of others. Despite some energetic performances and entertaining situations, the movie never shakes these basic narrative and character flaws. 

The plot gains a measure of realism, but is not completely saved, with Melody's evolving feelings towards Boris. Along the way her relationship with her divorced parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), and John (Ed Begley Jr.), who have tracked their daughter down, evolve as well. Manhattan has an unexpected effect on their red state ways, and it's a matter of perspective whether Allen is dealing in cultural stereotypes or satire.

The film begins and ends with Boris's "whatever works" outlook: in an indifferent universe, why not "filch whatever happiness you can." The difference is that he's in a better state of mind espousing this outlook at the end. The ways in which he gets to this state are, again, a stretch. This is the same minimally redemptive philosophy that Allen's Mickey character reaches at the end of "Hannah and Her Sisters," but with more believability in that superior film. In "Whatever Works," it doesn't quite work.

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