With 'Whatever Works,' Woody Allen Announces His Demise

City Pulse | June 15, 2009
Here's evidence that Woody Allen's return to making films in America -- it's his first since 2004 (Melinda and Melinda) -- comes with the loss of his mind. Adapted from a script Allen wrote some 30 years ago, Whatever Works is a desperate attempt at comedy that only relaxes its death grip whenever Allen's alter ego Boris Yellnikoff (grossly played by Larry David) is absent from the screen. The movie starts off with a fourth-wall-breaking rant by Boris, doing a bad Woody Allen impersonation, about what a joke life is and how its everyone's duty to "filch" whatever amount of joy they can from this cruel world. It's the film's, and ostensibly, Woody Allen's personal mission statement. Then Boris, a suicidal retired college professor, has the good fortune to share his downtown Manhattan apartment with Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a newly arrived runaway (she's 17) from the Deep South whose sublime ignorance provides an empty vessel for Boris to fill with his grumpy ideas and poisonous opinions. At first Boris deflects the randy nymph's advances with a stream of hostility-fueled barbs, but eventually enters into a doomed marriage with the girl who is roughly a fourth of his age. Boris' and Melody's quaint domestic life is upset when her religious-right mother Marietta (well played by Patricia Clarkson) shows up at their door several month's in advance of her ex-husband John's (Ed Begley) arrival in New York. Old men and young girls sharing romance is a card that Woody Allen has overplayed throughout his career, and it's a trope that has run out of steam. Here's a movie that feels thrown together, as if Allen is attempting to purge as many films as he can before he shuffles off his mortal coil. His legacy is going in an emotionally threadbare direction.

In 1979 Woody Allen made Manhattan, a romantic comedy about a middle aged comedy writer dating a 17-year-old high school student (played by the high cheek-boned Noxema girl Mariel Hemingway). Even in the groupie-friendly '70s, the director's love letter to the Big Apple -- and possibly the best film of his career -- met with harsh criticism for what was and is a condition of statutory rape. Now decades later, Allen pulls out the same narrative meme albeit with a much grumpier and far less horny malcontent who goes unwillingly down the isle with his fated Lolita, who will temporarily assuage Woody's itchy alter-ego before ultimately confirming his worst fears by abandoning him. Woody puts plenty of well-defended barriers between himself and his ever-present detractors. First, his protagonist's name is Boris Yellnikoff -- got it. Next, he's mad with a capitol "M." No one can criticize a guy who won't quit shouting because no judge, jury, or magistrate could ever get a word in edgewise. Finally, Boris is a genius of string theory -- a scientific philosophy that, not ironically, has never provided any quantitative experimental predictions. So it is that the audience suffers Larry David's painful imitations of Woody Allen as if he were auditioning for an off-Broadway play. At least his character is suicidal.

The most refreshing thing about Woody Allen's recent European films was their lack of an actor doing their best, or worst, Woody Allen impression. You'd think that after seeing Kenneth Branagh humiliate himself in Celebrity, Woody Allen would have learned his lesson about creating such self-defeating performances for his leading men.

The ham-handed moral of Whatever Works is that whoever comes into contact with Boris -- the moaning, desperate mastermind -- will become a smarter, more self-fulfilled person by osmosis. Marietta becomes a successful art photographer living in a menage a trois lifestyle -- she's a nymphomaniac -- with a couple of ardent college professors, while her ex-husband finds the courage to come out as a gay gun fetishist. I suppose you could give Woody Allen credit for being a dreamer, but his dream reads more as a nightmare than as a place where you'd want to spend even an hour.

Rated PG-13. 92 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Address: 1905 E. Michigan Avenue, Lansing, MI 48912-3011
  • Phone: (517) 371-5600