That Old Cracked Magic
by Michael Koresky
Dir. Woody Allen, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Yes, Woody Allen’s fortieth feature, Whatever Works, is Just Like All the Rest. So what? That should take a critic of average intelligence about thirty seconds to ascertain, or less if you want to start with the white-on-black credit typography; there’s still a whole movie left. Of course, willingness to wrestle with the latest Woody Allen release on its own terms is contingent on the given critic’s level of chumminess with the filmmaker. For the current generation of twenty- and thirty-something film writers, Allen is either crucial or a constant pest, a director as important to the landscape of contemporary American cinema as Scorsese, Lynch, and Spielberg, or as dried-up, irrelevant, and nebbishy as . . . Scorsese, Lynch, and Spielberg. It would be fruitless to try and convince those who grew up on a steady diet of his films—watching Stardust Memories before 8 ½, Alice before Juliet of the Spirits, Another Woman before Wild Strawberries—that he’s just a borrower and not an artist in his own right who brought classical foreign techniques and off-mainstream viewpoints to a largely crass national cinema. Conversely, for those who aren’t on Woody’s wavelength, who, heaven forbid, don’t laugh at every second of Annie Hall or get soul-rattling chills from Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s difficult to try and persuade of his importance.
For critics in either of these camps however, reviews of new Woody Allen movies still devolve into glorified lists of all those moments that make them just like every other Woody Allen movie. But in the case of Whatever Works, as with any minor work by a major director, the divergences are more telling than the similarities—and more useful to explore. In many ways the ultimate American auteur, Allen has labored upon a ponderous directing career for forty years, churning out films varied in genre but never in worldview, an oeuvre that has developed only in terms of sheer output, but not perceptibly in terms of emotional refinement, or what is commonly referred to as maturity. As a dubiously starstruck friend of Paul Lynde’s once said of the caustic comedian, he always thought of himself as “born finished,” and that must be a pretty apt expression of Allen’s immovable, immutable sensibility. It’s all always there, on the surface, whether packaged as a goyish family chamber drama, a Borscht Belt laugh riot, or a Euro art-house riff; whether it’s a success or failure, a “return to form” or a “stale retread”; whether it’s rigorous or phoned in. They’re generally marked by the same contradictions: atheistic yet oddly deterministic; for all intents and purposes liberal (in that dyed-in-the-wool Noo Yawk Jew way) yet in many ways fuddy-duddy conservative, certainly in terms of race and sexuality; and despite Allen’s reputation for off-the-cuff Manhattan-honed spontaneity in dialogue (the loquacity that led to Seinfeld, and hence the most viable recent comic revolution), his characters often feel like satellites surrounding a central philosophical idea, rather than real people who just happen to have certain beliefs, ideals, or weaknesses.
An intentionally needling comedy, Whatever Works plays right into the hands of his detractors—it even comes with a title laughably apt for the filmmaker’s increasingly one-take-and-is-it-time-for-my-Metamucil? approach; for others, though, it will be a reassuring stroll down memory lane (that lane going all the way back, of course, to the last one, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with which it shares a few plot points, despite its New York setting). But, as with many of Allen’s less successful films, if Whatever Works works, and here and there it does, it’s because of its occasional deviations from its maker’s playbook. The first and most noticeable of these is Larry David, whose presence closes the gap between the comedy of Woody Allen and Seinfeld, which as recently as 2000 Allen had claimed to have never seen. As dyspeptic protagonist Boris Yellnikof (perhaps the most whimsical in Allen’s long line of old-school Jew names, including Fielding Mellish and Alvy Singer, in addition to all the Isaacs, Lennys, Larrys, and Harrys), David would seem a natural mouthpiece for Woody’s at times paralyzing neuroses.
Yet in David’s hands, the commitment that so many of Allen’s actors have shown in getting into that well-practiced New York nebbish mindset (Bullets over Broadway’s sweaty John Cusack; Celebrity’s vigorously edgy, and unfairly maligned, Kenneth Branagh; Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s nervous Nellie Rebecca Hall) is traded in for an almost laidback indignation, a knowledge of the world as incontrovertibly fucked up that, while hardly soothing, at least gives him a certain confidence in his haranguing. David’s approach is fitting, since, not primarily an actor, he can only express himself with in-the-moment outbursts and wry, detached half-smiles. Though amusing as a version of himself stranded in L.A. on his otherwise annoyingly contrived HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, David really only registers about two emotions on his face: abhorrence and bemusement. There’s no warmth or even true anger in him, which ultimately proves detrimental for Whatever Works, the conventional structure of which demands that he convey both.
A former physicist who came close to winning a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, then, after attempting suicide by jumping out a window, left his wife and posh Upper East Side apartment for ramshackle digs (located on Chinatown’s Mott Street as opposed to an outer borough, in the first of many of the film’s anachronisms), Boris has refashioned himself as an obstreperous neighborhood crackpot, a man of ill-repute who gives chess lessons to adorable tykes only to end up berating them for their prepubescent mind levels. Introduced limping towards the camera in shabby clothes to directly assault the audience with a shockingly lengthy sampling of his withering world view (in which people are, among other things, “not fundamentally decent” and “short-sighted worms”), Boris is basically what Annie Hall’s Alvy feared he might become in his own opening direct-address monologue—no, not the “balding virile type,” but “one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism.”
According to a recent cover story in New York magazine, Woody Allen wrote Whatever Works decades ago, with Zero Mostel (his costar in 1976’s The Front, and at the time a still vital Yiddish Theatre holdover) in mind for the lead role. Certainly one can envision Mostel onscreen at any instant, wrapping his blubbery lips around Allen’s one-liners with more delectation, and ease, than David is capable of. In Mostel’s hands, Boris would have been truly intimidating, a life force for a character who’s practically dead from constant disappointment. Where Mostel was boisterous and physical, David is wan and muted, even when he lashes out, which is often. It’s not that David can’t deliver a laugh line or a look of disgust (in fact, that’s generally all he can do with aplomb), but that such a broad role needs a body to go with its batty brooding, and one can envision the mottled mid-1970s comedy classic Allen might have wrought with big, sweaty Mostel, one whose urban anxieties would have tromped on Manhattan sidewalks appropriately littered with detritus.
Mostel also might have been more plausibly comic as a stricken professional failure, although when it comes down to it, Boris’s shrieking endless misanthropy would have been trying coming from any actor’s lips, in any era. More cartoonish than relatably neurotic, Boris spews forth bile at a rate even more alarming than that of Deconstructing Harry’s miserable protagonist. To complement this caricature, Allen provides an equally broad foil in Evan Rachel Wood’s Melodie, a Southern beauty pageant queen who shows up shaking and hungry at Boris’s door one night. This little-girl-lost business is utter nonsense, even by Allen’s standards (Mira Sorvino’s happy hooker in Mighty Aphrodite might have talked like an animated rabbit and dressed like a P.T. Barnum’s idea of a career whore, but she seemed conceivable enough in a situation-comedy manner), and the film never quite recovers from the contrivance. Wood, with her entirely phony, too-emphatic Mississippi drawl, doesn’t help matters—in fact, her overdetermined idiot act has one yearning even for the (at least seductive) blankness of Woody’s recent muse Scarlett Johansson. She seems neither hurt nor amused by any of Boris’s flat-out mean put-downs, which range from simply descriptive (“stupid beyond all comprehension”) to hilariously literate (as when he calls her “a character out of Faulkner, not unlike Benjy”). Melodie’s obliviousness is her, and the film’s, defense mechanism, but without a skilled actress to make that void compelling, the character ends up a cipher (for comparison, think of Jennifer Tilly’s vivacious dope in Bullets over Broadway—though ultimately a victim, she never came across as victimized).
The romance that ripens, and quickly rots, between boorish Boris and melon-head Melodie is utterly tasteless, but at least the film acknowledges it as such; their incompatibility and the ludicrousness of their entirely off-screen love affair (which culminates in Boris grotesquely limping out of city hall with a less than ideally bridal Melodie on his arm) becomes the point. Yet as ridiculous as the situation becomes, the slow blossoming of their attraction to one another gives Allen the opportunity to slow down and do one of the things he does best: restfully chart people as they busily inhabit a space. There’s a charming moment early on, which echoes some of Allen’s moodiest passages (like that spectacularly atmospheric midnight ghost-dance from Alice, or the blackout sequence in the otherwise histrionic September), in which Boris waits up for Melodie after a flirtatious, skinny-jeaned hipster (John Gallagher, Jr.) takes her out. Alone in his cavernous hovel, mostly dark, save the neon signs of Chinatown restaurants occasionally glaring in the windows, Boris pushes play on his stereo, and in a single take, the camera follows him through a narrow hall and on to the hushed nighttime kitchen. Melodie then enters and the camera begins to follow her exclusively, as she discusses her disappointing date (he wasn’t critical enough of life, she tells Boris, evidence she’s been drinking his Kool-Aid). In a sense, the uncut shot, which effortlessly slides from one character’s point of view to the next, is quintessentially Woody Allen, yet there’s also more than a touch of cinematographer Harris Savides (Gus Van Sant’s standby, here working with the filmmaker for the first time), especially in tracking Boris from behind as he moves from one room to the next. It’s a lovely, fluid scene, a perfect union of director and DP, and also the first time these two cardboard cutouts become poignant figures worthy of our attention.
Then again, for every bit of delicacy there are three equally thudding crashes. So immediately preceding this we got an outdoor shot of Wood and Gallagher waiting in line for a concert at Webster Hall, on which a marquee is emblazoned Anal Sphincter. As a gag, it’s only a hop, skip, and a plop away from Hollywood Ending’s unforgettably flat attempt at poking fun at the young’uns, when Allen’s blind director tracked down his son, only to find a spiked punk with the sobriquet Scumbag X.
So, sure, Woody is here as out-of-touch crotchety as ever (“Did it achieve total heavy-osity?” he mockingly asked Diane Keaton when he found she went to a “rock concert”), but this is only noteworthy here because Whatever Works, in its neighborhood setting and surprising, if minor, class consciousness, is actually a departure from the almost exclusively moneyed trappings of much of Allen’s recent work, the nadir of which was probably Melinda and Melinda, with its chardonnay-clutching bourgeois brats complaining about Manhattan real-estate square footage while traipsing about luxurious brownstones. With its distinct downtown vibe—its Mott Street eateries and Yonah Shimmel Knish bakery and its “Japanese Film Festival” at Cinema Village—Whatever Works is still resolutely old-fashioned (even if younger location scouts have ensured an appearance by Café Mogador on St. Marks Place), but it’s a welcome attempt by someone who used to only venture below 59th street to occasionally play clarinet at Michael’s Pub.
Wailing about Woody’s anachronism, however, is at this point as rote as his films’ various examples of it. More valuable to note is that, in its cantankerous grandfatherly way, Whatever Works does in fact veer slightly from his earlier works, even if it manages to make progress seem retrograde: discussions of sexuality and race emerge (the latter in an Obama joke that already manages to be moth-eaten), and Allen even makes room for what can only be surmised as his first major gay character (previous, fleeting incarnations included Robert Joy in Radio Days, sensitive but mostly a sad-sack punchline, and various grotesques in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex). There’s even a sassy one-liner about God being gay (due to his obvious interior designer skills) that zings nicely despite its conceptual staleness. It’s the kind of joke that works mostly for what it says about Woody, circa 2009, than for what it means to comedy 2009, or, more generally, 2009. Likewise, the film’s outline of downward mobility feels refreshing, and not entirely disingenuous: Boris, who with his extra-large T-shirts and permanent scowl looks one scraggly step away from bum, belongs downtown, grimly assailing the ears of anyone who dares listen.
Similarly, Whatever Works’ portrait of sexual and artistic awakening, typified, as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, by photo gallery openings and ménages à trois, is limp but welcome, especially as it’s Patricia Clarkson’s Marietta, Melodie’s mother, who embodies it. Clarkson, who made the most of her every tossed-off line in Vicky, storms into Whatever Works. Her presence has the effect of oasis after some 45 minutes of parched, barely-there banter between the amateur but amusing David and the ineffectual Wood. Whereas David and Wood give their lines no twist or inflection, remaining strictly superficial, Clarkson reminds us that Allen’s dialogue works best when every word is given a committed spin by a genuine actor. Initially aghast at what she sees, both in and outside of Boris’s hermetic pad (she tells her daughter she’s “living like a sharecropper” and denounces “secular humanists”), the staunchly right-wing and deeply Christian Marietta soon finds her artistic self (with the encouragement of Boris’s more sexually free fifty-something friends), which in Woody’s vision of New York naturally leads to something like liberal reeducation.
As a major plot thrust, Marietta’s gradual indoctrination is preposterous (the ten-second joke in Everyone Says I Love You of Lukas Haas finding out from a doctor that his conservative politics had been the result of not enough oxygen to the brain had more pop), but Allen’s open-minded friskiness is contagious. Especially beneficial is Allen’s decision to shift the film more to the women’s point of view (especially Marietta’s, a smart move considering how compelling Clarkson often is onscreen), which helps the film crawl out from under Boris’s heavy thumb. If ultimately Whatever Works adds up to little more than a disposable lark, at least there are enough tiny variations from its director’s earlier films to keep it moving along. Anyone hoping that Allen will one day “reinvent” himself better put their money on a new horse—this one’s been dead and beaten for years. This doesn’t mean that we can’t still get a few good kicks out of it.