Review: ‘Whatever Works’ Doesn’t

The combination of Woody Allen’s return to New York City and Larry David’s presence as the lead in his new film never pays off as it should.
By  · Published on June 18th, 2009

Whatever Works marks Woody Allen’s much-heralded return to New York, where his ongoing European sojourn has felt like a profound betrayal, even if the high cost of shooting in NYC necessitated it. Though he’s done some of his best recent work abroad, unpacking London and Barcelona with his unique, carefully observed eye for high-end urban spaces, the man as closely associated with New York as anyone belongs on this side of the Atlantic.

So there’s definitely some pleasure to be had in the specter of Allen coming back home, with a multitude of Lower Manhattan locations once again playing a major role in his storytelling. Casting Larry David as his Doppelgänger also seems, on the face of it, a coup, a melding of the minds of two of the all-time great masters of Jewish humor. Yet Whatever Works, which Allen wrote for Zero Mostel in the 1970s and recently updated, comes across as a severely dated relic from that era.

It’s a superficial bit of cultural warfare that pits New York as the epitome of all things grand and cultured and those from the South as simple minded, impressionable bumpkins. An unwieldy hybrid of early ’70s Allen, circa such broad comedies as Bananas and Sleeper, and his more grounded work that closed out the decade, it flits along through staged comic scenarios before reaching a hasty, far too tidy conclusion. One of the oft-repeated criticisms of the filmmaker is that he works too much, with his one movie per year output. Films this misshapen and shallow lend credence to that idea.

David plays Boris Yellnikof, a misanthropic genius who tires of his tony Uptown life and moves to the grittier (though not by much, as anyone who has visited the neighborhood recently can testify) Lower East Side. His dreams of living in peaceful solitude fall apart thanks to the sudden appearance of teenage runaway Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), fresh off the bus from Mississippi. She’s got nowhere to go, he begrudgingly lets her stay and soon enough they’re married. Then, in the ultimate nightmare scenario, her mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up.

This is all a sorry excuse for simple, half-baked Blue State-Red State divisiveness. Stereotypes abound in Melodie’s relentlessly sweet schoolgirl demeanor and her mother’s uptight matronly attitudinal displays. The Southerners are, to Allen, churchgoing gun loving rightwing loonies, sent from the hinterlands to the great city for some My Fair Lady style refinement. While the concept might have felt fresh in, well, the 70s, it’s far too simplistic for an era in which the oversimplified Red State-Blue State divide has seeped so resolutely into our national discourse that nary a political discussion goes by without it being raised. Woody hammers it home, plugging away at the differences so endlessly that there’s not much else going on.

The actors suffer from the heightened caricaturing, left playing thin archetypes rather than fleshed out human beings. Boris is relentlessly solipsistic and hopelessly grim, a nastier version of the Larry David character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The star, a brilliant satirist and a master at improv, leaves his comfort zone but resorts to many of the same bellicose tricks he employs on the show. A crank, a pedant bereft of a sympathetic trait, Boris proves a thoroughly ill-conceived protagonist. Aside from a moment or two in which he hints at the deep self-disgust that must persistently eat away at such a grouch, David’s performance consists of little more than angrily expelled, biting one-liners. Wood, with a pre-pubescent wardrobe that finds her in pigtails and sweat pants fares better. She can’t, however, overcome the sheer contrivance inherent in Melodie’s relationship with such an angry older man, with whom she has nothing in common. The actress puts on a convincing Mississippi accent and projects the character’s relentless innocence without making it unnerving, but she’s as objectified as her co-star, left at the forced comic whims of the creator and the sham world he’s created for her.

The abundance of master shots, in which the camera plants itself in Boris’s loft or tracks the characters as they visit various tourist spots, lends the picture a moderated, realistic visual sensibility that uncomfortably contradicts the amplified milieu. The film, shot by Harris Savides, evokes the appeal of New York on a warm spring afternoon, with the city’s tree-lined streets in bloom and New Yorkers flooding parks, street fairs and other scenic locales before patronizing picturesque restaurants or spending the night at home, perched on the couch, with a Fred Astaire classic unfolding on TV. It’s the sort of vision Allen specializes in, an idealized though still recognizable valentine to the city, its culture and the perks of urban dwelling. If only, this time around, he’d populated it with characters that might actually inhabit the New York he depicts and a story worth telling, his return home would be worth celebrating.