(No longer in theaters)
Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum
Sony Pictures Classics
Jun 19, 2009
Woody Allen reportedly wrote Whatever Works around the same time as Annie Hall and made only a few cosmetic changes before he shot it last year, and if that’s true, it’s depressing on too many levels to contemplate. It suggests that even back in the seventies, at his most potent and fearless, he had the soul of a sclerotic old misanthrope. Allen’s protagonist, Boris (Larry David), an out-of-work physics professor, is not a heroic mouthpiece: He’s meant to be a pompous crank, a windbag. But as he bellows his long monologues about cosmic injustice and entropy and the stupidity of religious faith (the phrase “whatever works” is the Jewish shrug that makes tragedy comedy, a sort of “Life sucks—where do you wanna eat?”), it’s only his affect that’s objectionable. He’s the lone character with stature, and there’s nothing and no one with the capacity to take him on—only to insult him or, in the case of women, leave him. Allen’s movies are infused with self-hatred yet completely reinforce that hateful self’s worldview.
It seemed like a good idea to cast David as Allen’s alter ego, and not just because he has the Seinfeld-HBO cachet. As the model for George on Seinfeld and in Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s too defended (and, later, too rich) to care about social mores and other people’s feelings, and his lack of hypocrisy is refreshing. In small doses, he turns the narcissistic jerk into a hipster. But as an actor he has no equipment for suggesting a conflicted inner life: It’s all just straight to the camera, uninflected bombast. So he depersonalizes the movie. He comes off like a Woody Allen robot: You push its button, and it gravitates to sexy young girls and lectures them on the meaninglessness of life, the shallowness of youth, and the superiority of Beethoven and Fred Astaire to this modern rock noise that all sounds the same. In this case, the girl is an unlikely southern runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood, who is impossibly pretty and long-waisted and channels Holly Hunter down to the cute little upward twist of her mouth. So both characters are like robots standing in for other people.
Long stretches of Whatever Works are confined to Boris’s
duplex apartment and play like third-rate Kaufman and Hart. The
difference is that theater actors would have had time to rehearse;
these poor players rattle off their lines with the stiffness of a busy
summer-stock troupe. As the girl’s southern mom, Patricia Clarkson has
poise and a smoky delivery that doesn’t hide the crudeness of the
writing but lets you, at least, share her pleasure in it. But it’s hard
to get past the primitiveness of Allen’s fantasies. In the movie, three
members of a devout Christian southern family travel to Manhattan and
become, under his Jewish-atheist influence, cultured, intellectual,
atheistic, and, in one case, gay. He saves their souls—but they reject
him. It’s almost like he’s … Oh, Christ.