Whatever Works, Woody Allen’s 40th movie as writer and director, begins with a ghostly visitation from the distant past of Jewish-American comedy, so distant it predates not only Allen’s career but also his birth, in 1935. The lights dim, we see the familiar white-on-black credits unspool in the same font we’ve been looking at for nearly four decades (it’s Windsor Light Condensed, by the way) … and then we hear the voice of Groucho Marx, Allen’s anarchic spiritual grandfather, singing lyrics he first performed in Animal Crackers in the infancy of sound cinema.
Hello, I must be going
I cannot stay, I came to say
I must be going
I’m glad I came but just the same
I must be going
The words, which seem pipelined straight from the subconscious of the man who decided to put them in the movie, couldn’t be more apt for the story that follows. Whatever Works, which opens June 19, is both a greeting and a farewell, a film that marks Allen’s return to the city he abruptly abandoned, cinematically speaking, several years ago, as well as a reminder that a certain kind of comedy of which he was once the undisputed master has vanished and is being resurrected only because of an unlikely convergence of circumstances. Remember the Woody Allen of the seventies, the guy who several generations of New Yorkers decided was the comedic poet laureate of their era of the city? The man with whom they had a great first date (1973’s Sleeper) that deepened into a full-on relationship (1977’s Annie Hall) and then further enriched itself into true love (1979’s Manhattan), because we always fall in love with the one who makes us laugh? Whatever Works is, in essence, the missing movie from that period—the film that would have rounded out the New York phase of Allen’s early career if only he had made it.
He finally did, by accident. Allen’s last four movies have been shot in Europe, a shift that occurred after 2004’s little-seen Melinda and Melinda. For many New Yorkers, this felt not quite like a jilting but perhaps like hearing that the ex you dumped has fallen madly in love with somebody more attractive than you. There are moviegoers who have held on through each of Allen’s triumphs and missteps; there are others who pine for the entry that will remind them of his “early, funny ones.” Still others have given up. The public’s relationship with him has gone through cycles of recrimination, most notably over the 1992 Soon-Yi Previn scandal, and forgiveness, a sentiment that was exhibited in 2002 when the director stepped unexpectedly onto the stage at the Oscars to extol the glories of New York filmmaking shortly after 9/11. The roaring ovation that greeted him suggested that he, his fans, and the biz were reconciled at last.
And then he departed. Allen insists that this was motivated by economics, not ennui with a city that still felt it owned him. “If it was up to me, I would work in New York frequently, although I’ve gotten a little addicted to working out of the country too,” he said, when I sat down to talk with him and Larry David last month. “But the city is very expensive.” As a result, the 73-year-old, whose movies return only modest grosses and are financed independently, now spends most summers shooting abroad; he prefers to go into production when the couple’s children, Bechet and Manzie, are out of school.
But early last year, facing what turned out to be the false-alarm threat of a summerlong actors’ strike, Allen was forced to start a movie three months sooner than planned. That meant staying in New York with the kids, and without a new script ready, he reached for an old one. A really old one. Whatever Works is a screenplay that dates so far back it was originally written for Zero Mostel, who died the year Annie Hall came out. Allen updated it very slightly (including a voice-over reference to President Obama), but make no mistake: This movie is literally vintage Woody Allen. In fact, it calls to mind a brand of Jewish humor that has, in recent years, been all but scrubbed out—neurotic, depressive, abrasive, excluded. And to serve as its embodiment, he drafted Larry David, the guy who, through six seasons of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, has done more than anyone—even Allen—to keep that sensibility alive for a generation to whom it’s now almost completely foreign.
In Whatever Works, David, in what will inevitably be called “the Woody Allen role,” plays physicist Boris Yellnikoff, a cranky, forlorn, impatient New York Jew of a certain age who falls hard for a much younger woman, the sunny but unformed Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), after his marriage collapses in the wake of his general soul-sucking unpleasantness. Boris is a walking disaster—an arrogant snob who sees life as “a chamber of horrors,” derides his uneducated girlfriend as a “submental baton twirler” and “stupid beyond all comprehension,” who refers to another character as a “bigot moron,” and who sneers at the audience in an Annie Hall–style, breaking-the-fourth-wall moment: “I’m sure you’re all obsessed with any number of sad little hopes and dreams.” The movie begins and ends with separate suicide attempts by defenestration; given Boris’s staggering misanthropy, some moviegoers may root for the pavement to win. (Allen didn’t want to play Boris himself, feeling he was too old—David is 61—and may have lacked the character’s natural aggression.)