If you’re even marginally a Woody Allen fan, forget the naysayers and beat a path to Whatever Works without a moment’s hesitation. His new film is pure joy—even if the joy is tempered with some pretty heavy subject matter, handled in the manner that only Allen can. Call Whatever Works “vintage Woody,” if you like, because that’s never been truer. The original screenplay was written in 1977 for Zero Mostel. When Mostel inconsiderately died before the film could be made, Allen set the script aside, resurrecting it and dusting off the topical references when a writers’ strike loomed.
The passing 32 years have been kind to Allen’s screenplay. It’s as funny—maybe funnier—as it would have been then, and, if anything, it feels more daring and relevant now. Ironically, much of what makes the film seem daring is the result of the passage of time. Elements of the film that are guaranteed to frighten the horses in 2009—the March/December romance, a ménage à trois, a homosexual awakening, the generally irreligious tone—would have been less shocking in 1977. The fact that Allen presents them in a matter-of-fact, almost offhanded manner reflects that earlier era, making them just that much more provocative today.
The film centers on Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a one-time Nobel Prize candidate (he didn’t win) and former college professor, who is married to a wealthy woman. His gloomy outlook on the meaninglessness and horror of existence (culminating in a botched suicide bid) destroys his career and his marriage, and drives him to living in a squalid apartment on the fringe of Chinatown, eking out a living of sorts by teaching chess to children. This mostly results in him browbeating the youngsters and their parents (“Your son is an imbecile”). Boris is happy enough in his misery—it suits his worldview—until he finds himself beset upon by an underage Southern beauty queen named Melody St. Ann Celestine (a marvelous Evan Rachel Wood), who buys into his abusive, self-proclaimed genius and falls in love with him. Before long, she’s married to the aging curmudgeon.
The oddly matched couple is actually happy enough—until Melody’s repressed, fundamentalist mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), arrives on the scene and is properly horrified. However, New York City works its liberating or corrupting (your call) magic on Marietta, who ends up finding her true artistic calling—even if she’s still appalled by her son-in-law and wants nothing more than to derail the marriage. Plot-wise, this is the tip of the iceberg, since Allen has packed the 92-minute film with characters and details and events—including the arrival of Melody’s errant father (Ed Begley Jr.), who wants to rebuild the family. Saying more would spoil the fun.
Is what happens realistic? Probably not, but it’s all realistic in the world in which the film takes place. Whatever Works is such a carefully constructed piece of storytelling that it works with a kind of clockwork precision in a realm of its own. It has to work the way it does in order to make Boris the hero and the butt of the joke. The precision with which everything just falls into place has the appearance of being as utterly random and meaningless as he thinks the world is, while simultaneously making it impossible for anyone who isn’t Boris not to get a whiff of “everything happens for a reason.” It also works out the way it does because Allen wants it to—and knows that’s what we want, too. If Annie Hall (from the same era as this script) put forth the idea of art making right that which couldn’t be made right in life, Whatever Works is that idea put into practice.
Whatever Works may be Allen’s richest film since Crimes and Misdemeanors from 20 years ago. It’s not the glossiest or the slickest, mind you. It has a deliberately take-it-or-leave-it visual style that’s almost crude by comparison with, say, Scoop (2006). It also has a mild downside on occasion. There are moments when Larry David delivers a line and you realize that, no matter how good he is, Zero Mostel would have gotten more out of it. But in overall impact, it’s hard to beat. That, at least, is what it looks like to me, based on one viewing, which is hardly the acid test. But it’s enough of a test for me to say that it’s a pretty great movie—and it’s a movie that works with an audience. Catching the film at a 7 p.m. show on Friday, I was delighted to find the relatively small crowd responding with more laughter than I’ve heard in a theater in some time. Go see it for yourself. This is a witty, warm, wonderful movie that actually is the “feel good” movie Boris assures us it isn’t at the beginning. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations, including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material.