Ann Hornaday Movie Review: Woody Allen's Disappointing 'Whatever Works'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

Woody Allen reportedly wrote "Whatever Works" back in the 1970s, then shelved it when his intended star, Zero Mostel, died. Would that it had stayed in the drawer.

This toxic, contemptuous, unforgivably unfunny bagatelle finds Allen at his most misanthropically one-note. You have to give the 73-year-old auteur credit for churning out movies with the reliability of an Energizer Bunny, albeit a bespectacled, deeply neurotic one. Anyone with Allen's compulsive work ethic is bound to produce as many hits as misses; in recent years, the former include the sly Hitchcock homage "Match Point" and the uneven but ultimately pleasing "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

"Whatever Works," in which Larry David plays Allen's alter ego as a grumpy, growling modern-day Raskolnikov, belongs firmly in the "miss" category, managing to be simultaneously lazy, inhumane and really kind of creepy.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a self-described genius who has been living on Manhattan's Lower East Side since trying to escape his first wife by jumping out a window. Boris is a limping, loathsome creature who refers to nearly everyone he meets as "idiots," "incompetent zombies" and "inchworms." A former physics professor, he'll tell anyone who'll listen -- including the movie audience he occasionally confides in by addressing the camera directly -- that he was a Nobel finalist.

It's a wonder Boris has any friends at all, but he meets regularly with three other guys (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks and Lyle Kanouse) to bark out Allen's now-familiar nostrums about suffering and mortality. Then one night he finds a shivering, homeless runaway named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), who has fled her life in Mississippi and blithely takes up residence in Boris's loft despite his protestations.

"Whatever Works" clearly looks to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy for inspiration, and finally Chekhov when Melody's evangelical parents arrive on the scene. That painfully stereotyped couple -- portrayed as Bible-thumping nitwits whose way of life is irrevocably threatened by the lures of New York sophistication -- is played by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. with as much dignity as they can muster. But even seasoned, appealing pros such as they can't overcome a script that consistently sacrifices story for plottiness, character for caricature and soul for a breathtaking lack of compassion.

The people who populate Allen's fictional world have always had a rarefied air about them, but at his best, and when he's working with great actors, he's been able to bring life to creatures who, while appearing to inhabit some kind of cosmopolitan fairy tale, nevertheless seemed as if they could actually live in the real world. In "Whatever Works," no one seems real, not the preternaturally naive Melody (whom Allen decks out in hot pants and pigtails, presumably because he wanted to make absolutely sure that viewers made the connection with his controversial romance with a much younger woman), and especially not Boris.

It's easy to see why Allen cast David in a part that demands all the rancor that he brought to his eponymous character on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The problem is that Boris possesses none of David's own fleeting moments of self-awareness. On TV, David's mortifying incursions on the boundaries of good behavior make for a certain vicarious, squirm-inducing catharsis. Here, when Boris chews out a little kid playing chess or puts someone down as an "imbecile" or a "microbe," he's just a schmuck. And not a particularly interesting one at that.

The result is a contrived wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which Boris/Allen gets to have his cake and eat it, too. With its preposterous, self-serving climax (and thoroughly unearned finale), "Whatever Works" finally plays like a warped kind of summa of Allen's tortured relationship with women. It's clear that in his estimation, they always belong on the bottom -- whether to be intellectually bullied or sexually dominated or simply to cushion a pathetic man's inevitable descent.

Whatever Works (92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual situations including profanity, brief nude images and thematic material.

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