Whatever Works

At some point in the last decade, a tradition emerged amongst film critics: every time a new Woody Allen film comes along, speculation must be made as to whether it is ‘a return to  form’ or ‘a colossal disappointment signalling the irreversible cinematic demise of the wit and intelligence of a once great filmmaker’. And, given the astonishing rate at which Allen churns out new films (his newest, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, premiered at Cannes in May, before Whatever Works was even released here), the tradition is pretty much an annual one. It’s also a tradition which requires hysterical overreaction from critics, whether it’s orgiastically fawning over the decent but unremarkable Vicky Christina Barcelona or gleefully condemning Cassandra’s Dream to be the worst film of Allen’s career. In reality, while Woody Allen seems destined never to reach the heights of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Love and Death again (he’s certainly had some recent clunkers; Scoop didn’t even get a theatrical release in the UK), the 74-year-old writer/director still produces the occasional gem. It’s gratifying, then, to find that Whatever Works is clever, extremely funny and even a little moving. Just don’t call it a return to form.

Larry David stars as Boris Yelnikoff, a retired quantum physicist and self-proclaimed genius, whose intelligence has led him to attempt suicide in despair at life’s utter pointlessness. Having failed to kill himself (the jump out of the window landing him with a permanent limp instead), Boris leaves his wife and instead passes the time either in a café, delivering misanthropic and pessimistic monologues to his patient friends, or in the park, angrily instructing and berating young children on how to play chess. At this point, a 21-year-old girl from the Deep South called Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) appears on his doorstep, and after much pleading, he eventually allows her to live with him. If the plot sounds like old school Woody Allen, that’s because it is – he wrote the script in the 1970s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel as Boris, but following Mostel’s death, the script was shelved until now. As a result, the film has a strangely timeless feel to it, and, aside from the occasional topical references, wouldn’t look out of place sitting amongst his work of thirty-five years ago. It’s knowingly farcical and fully embraces its caricatures of both Southerners and New Yorkers, and as such is at odds with some of his more serious recent work.

Although the only acting he’s known for is the improvisation of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is impressive as Boris, and it is a testament to David that the character remains thoroughly sympathetic and likeable, despite his continual condescension and verbal abuse towards others. He occasionally addresses the audience directly in a manner reminiscent of Woody himself in Annie Hall, and, despite David’s skill, one can’t help but wonder why the director didn’t take the role himself. He’s disappeared behind the camera for most of his recent films, and they are that much weaker for his onscreen absence. Still, the rest of the cast hold the film together admirably, especially Evan Rachel Wood, whose naïve Melodie could well have been an irritating presence. The romance that soon blossoms between her and Boris is also particularly well handled, neatly avoiding any notions of creepiness – no mean feat when she is young enough to be his granddaughter.

It’s also amusing to see life imitating art here, as since writing the script all those decades ago, Allen fell in love with his then-partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, despite a thirty-four year age gap. His defence of their relationship was simply to say, “The heart wants what the heart wants. There’s no logic to these things.” The film continues this philosophy rather nicely, instructing its audience to find happiness and love wherever you can – “whatever works”, as Boris keeps repeating – and championing New York, with its liberal-minded inhabitants, as the place to do it. Yet if this sounds in any way sentimental, that would be doing the film a disservice; Allen’s sharp script never tires of reminding us of life’s pointlessness and the utter meaningless of each person’s existence, and it’s in the face of such depressing nothingness that we’re told to grab life and love while we can. Nihilism’s never been so uplifting.

Originally published by Cherwell Online, 02/07/2010.

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