Whatever Works

“Whatever Works” Does Not.  Marking a return to his home turf after making half a dozen pictures abroad, “Whatever Works,” Woody Allen’s Manhattan-based comedy, recycles old ideas, jokes, and characters of the helmer’s oeuvre circa the 1970s and 1980s.  (I heard a rumor that the scenario was indeed written in the late 1970s and that Allen just retouched it before shooting last year).


“Whatever Works” is not a bad picture, but considering that it’s only 92 minutes long, the comedy is not funny or witty enough, as it pretends to be.  Moreover, casting the gifted Larry David (TV's “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) as the misanthropic protagonist might not have been such a good idea after all, because he plays a variation of his small-screen persona in a role that Woody Allen could (and would) have played 15 or 20 years ago in his sleep.


Coming right after Allen’s return to form, the buoyant romantic comedy, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which was more commercially popular than the five former Allen pictures put together, is particularly disappointing, recalling his smaller, unsuccessful U.S. (“Melinda and Melinda”) and U.K. productions (“Scoop”).


The movie, which received its world premiere as opening night of the ninth Tribeca Film Festival, will be released by Sony Classics in late June as counter-programming to the summer’s top guns and broad, rowdy comedies, but it’s doubtful whether it would be liked by critics or audiences.


Not to worry about Allen's career: As always, he is already at work on his next film, which features, among other things, some of the greatest actors and actresses working today, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts.


Speaking of casting, Allen must have perceived himself too old to play the lead in “Whatever Works,” which he would have easily essayed 15 or 20 years ago, but he might have learned a lesson when he cast himself in a romantic lead against Julia Roberts in “Everyone Says I Love You.”


In “Whatever Works,” Allen contrasts David’s cranky misanthrope with the charming Evan Rachel Wood, as a naïve girl from the South, who runs away from her rigid Catholic parents, played by Patricia Clarkson (who was also in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Ed Begley, Jr.  The alarmed parents decide to go on a rescue mission, which throws them into all kinds of unexpected entanglements, some of which wildly romantic, while others  more conventional or just irritating.


The title is a take on a Jewish expression, often uttered by yentas in melodrams to make the characters (and audiences) feel better about themselves when they encounter difficulties . The yarn’s moral is the same old-fashioned one as in most Allen's pictures. love is a mysterious beast, you can search for it aggressively but in the end, fate, luck, and chance are more important factors than your needs or desires.  Like other Allen’s films, this one draws on his own personal life, hobbies like chess, and favorite performers such as Fred Astaire in the b/w RKO musicals. 

After experiencing a failed career and marriage and a suicide attempt, Boris Yellnikoff embarks on a lifestyle, which boils down to irritating all those around him.  Among his victims are his own children, subjected to his temper and stuck with studying chess with his older friends. 


The first, theatrical reel makes it clear that the scenario was not well thought out–by Allen’s usually higher standards.  Boris specializes at delivering endless negative tirades about the worthlessness of everything, including the futility of religious faith. We quickly learn that he is a former Columbia Professor, a self-proclaimed genius who “almost” won a Nobel Prize for Quantum Mechanics.  Crotchety and unpleasant, Boris fancies himself to be the only man who comprehends the meaningless of human aspirations and the chaos of the universe, whatever those concepts mean.  Early on, he readily acknowledges, “I am not a feel-good person.”  He ain't kidding. For the next hour or so, he goes to prove that maxim in scene after scene.


Boris was once a world-renowned physicist teaching String Theory at Columbia, happily married to the rich and beautiful Jessica (Carolyn McCormick) with whom he lived in a lavish Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. But Boris’s good fortune didn’t alleviate his despair, and one night, after yet another marital argument, he jumped out of the window but disappointingly landed on a canopy. After his survival, Boris divorced Jessica and moved Downtown, which in Allen’s world is a penalizing ordeal.


One night, Boris is approached by a runaway named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), who begs him to let her into his place; reluctantly he agrees. Melody turns out to be a dewy-eyed innocent from Mississippi who takes Boris' sarcastic comment literally, even when he tells her she is a brainless twit and too fragile to survive in New York. What begins as a “few nights” stay gets prolonged when Melody makes herself at home.  Occasionally, she proves a useful companion, able to calm Boris down from a panic attack by inviting him to watch a Fred Astaire movie with her on TV. Soon, Melody declares she has a crush on Boris, who rebuffs her; should not beautiful girls date somebody their own age. 


Later on, Melody meets Perry (John Gallagher, Jr.), a youngster who is immediately smitten with her. While she’s out on a date with Perry, Boris tells his friends Joe and Leo Brockman that he hopes Perry will take Melody off his hands.


However, when Melody confides in him that her date was a washout and she couldn’t relate to Perry because he was ignorant about string theory,  Boris realizes he had fallen in love. Boris and Melody get married and start a mutually satisfying life. He recognizes the value of her cheerfulness, and she is proud to be married to a genius.

After a year, their happiness is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Melody’s mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who's getting away from her adulterous husband. Discovering that her daughter is wed to eccentric curmudgeon decades older, she faints. In an effort to temper the awkwardness of the situation, Boris takes the two women to lunch with his friend Brockman (Conleth Hill). While at the restaurant, Marietta encounters Randy Lee James (Henry Cavill), a handsome man captivated by Melody; likewise, Brockman is bowled over by Marietta.


Brockman invites Marietta on a date and later to his apartment. When she shows him her snapshots, her talent startles him.  For her part, making love with Brockman unleashes Marietta sexually and artistically. Eventually she settles into a ménage à trois with Brockman and her gallery owner, Al Morgenstern (Olek Krupa).


Melody finally reacts to Boris’s rants by telling him he’s like a child who throws a tantrum when he can’t get his way. For his part, Boris is shocked that Melody can think for herself. Marietta then orchestrates a second “chance meeting” between Melody and Randy, and the two end up making love on his boat.


Later, Melody and Boris are jolted by the unexpected arrival of her father John (Ed Begley, Jr.), who is determined to bring home his daughter and wife, ignoring the fact that Marietta has moved on and is no longer the woman she used to be.  Arriving in the midst of Marietta’s gallery opening, John is stunned by his wife’s transformation and devastated by her rejection.  Nursing his sadness in a bar, John meets another heartbroken man, Howard Cummings, née Kaminsky (Christopher Evan Welch). As their heart-to-heart continues, John admits that he never really had a passion for his wife. 


Meanwhile, the despondent Boris decides to jump out the window. Through a random, capricious trick of fate, he lands on top of a woman, which sends her to the hospital. Visiting the woman, Helena (Jessica Hecht) in the hospital, Boris discovers she is a psychic. “How come you didn’t know I would fall on you?” Boris asks her. “Maybe I did,” she responds.


The tale's romantic partners continue to realign and form new relationships, hoping to fulfill their needs, only to learn that there are no rules for love, that however abnormal a relationship might be, it’s whatever works that gets one through life.


Of Allen's recent films, “Whatever Works” is more “plot-driven,” perhaps because it was conceived decades ago.  New characters enter and exit the entangled maze at the whim of a helmer, who shows condescending aproach towardx most of them (especialy the Catholics from the South) so that he can elevate the stature of the more cultured New York Jew. 

In the end, the feeling remains that the movie is a second or third-tier Allen, quickly conceived, quickly executed, and just as quickly forgotten.



Boris Yellnikoff – Larry David
Melody – Evan Rachel Wood
Marietta – Patricia Clarkson
John – Ed Begley Jr.
Joe – Michael McKean
Randy James – Henry Cavill
Perry – John Gallagher Jr.
Helena – Jessica Hecht
Jessica – Carolyn McCormick
Howard – Christopher Evan Welch