Whatever Works

Movie Information

The Story: An aging curmudgeon finds his comfortable misery turned upside down when he takes in a young Southern beauty queen who has run away from her repressive parents. The Lowdown: Prime Woody Allen -- even vintage Woody Allen -- with nonstop laughs and more than a little something on its mind.
Score:
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Genre: Comedy
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Henry Cavill, Chistopher Evan Welch
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

19 thoughts on “Whatever Works

  1. Marcianne Miller

    Different strokes…Funny? I laughed once. So did my friend who endured the film with me. But we were the only two people in our audience who laughed even that much. Other than the lovely “southern belles,” Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson, the movie was an excruciating bore. The only notable thing about it is that it will definitely be included in my list for Ten Worst Movies of the Year. Marcianne Miller

  2. Jon Elliston

    Marcianne, I’m surprised to hear of the crowd reaction you encountered. Saw it tonight with a friend at the Fine Arts, crowd about half full. There was laughter by many throughout, even when I least expected it.

  3. Marcianne Miller

    Glad you and your audience liked it, Jon. It’s fascinating how a particular movie can evoke polar reactions, isn’t it? Perhaps afternoon audiences differ from evening audiences. Doesn’t matter though whether other people were laughing their heads off or not. I tried my best, but I hated this movie.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Marcianne, if memory serves, you don’t care for Woody Allen very much to begin with, which is fine, but it is a point of consideration. Actually, knowing you, I would never have recommended you go to this film in the first place, because there are things about it I suspected would not sit well with you.

  5. Marcianne Miller

    Ha! Ken, as you and I know, sometimes the most effective way to get people to see a movie is to reveal you don’t like it! True, I haven’t liked all the most recent Woody movies (especially Match Point) and also true I have liked and sometimes loved some. In an attempt to be fair, I specifically chose a male friend who likes Woody Allen to accompany me. Even he didn’t like it. Let’s be upfront about one of the main reasons (there are several) that I didn’t like the movie, so other readers can be alerted. Its snooze factor aside, Whatever Works is yet another creepy Woody Allen fantasy about an unlikeable, neurotic, verbose, curmudgeon who, by a twist of fate, earns the love of a sweet beauty 40 years his junior for most of the movie. Yech! Give me more of Woody’s healthy sex romps like Annie Hall and Vicky Christina Barcelona and spare me Whatever Works’ overused cliche. Am I viewing this from a woman’s point of view and missing its so-called humor? I doubt it. Let’s hear from other women who’ve seen the movie.

  6. Nancy Brennan

    Now I don’t know what to make of these drastically differing opinions. I’m not a Woody Allen fan but did like Annie Hall. Maybe I’ll just go see Easy Virtue again, if it’s still playing. I loved it and would love to see it again. I’ve decided the only reason to go see a movie is to escape for a few hours and I want my escape to end happily. No sad endings for me!

  7. Ken Hanke

    Whatever Works is yet another creepy Woody Allen fantasy about an unlikeable, neurotic, verbose, curmudgeon who, by a twist of fate, earns the love of a sweet beauty 40 years his junior for most of the movie. Yech!

    It’s not how I would describe what happens, but it’s exactly the reason I wouldn’t have suggested you see the film. Of course, you’re also reading in terms of Allen’s personal life, I suspect. But consider your description of it as “yet another creepy Woody Allen fantasy” when in point of fact, it’s really the original such, since it was written 32 years ago. At that time it’s doubtful it could be properly described as a personal fantasy, since the then 41-42 year old Allen wouldn’t be having such a fantasy.

    Give me more of Woody’s healthy sex romps like Annie Hall and Vicky Christina Barcelona and spare me Whatever Works’ overused cliche.

    I’m not sure how those qualify as healthy sex romps, since they deal with much more screwed-up and dysfunctional relationships. But just exactly what is the “overused cliche” here? The older man/young woman aspect? I don’t recall you having a “yech” reaction to Cheri with its 19-year-old boy and 49-year-old woman relationship.

    Am I viewing this from a woman’s point of view and missing its so-called humor? I doubt it. Let’s hear from other women who’ve seen the movie

    I’m good with that, but wouldn’t a raft of negative comments from women actually endorse the idea that you are viewing this from a woman’s point of view? There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, but I don’t see that it would prove your point.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I’m not a Woody Allen fan but did like Annie Hall.

    In itself, that wouldn’t make me say you’d necessarily like this.

    Maybe I’ll just go see Easy Virtue again, if it’s still playing. I loved it and would love to see it again.

    It is still playing and I would never try to disuade anyone from seeing that fine film a second time.

    I’ve decided the only reason to go see a movie is to escape for a few hours and I want my escape to end happily. No sad endings for me!

    Well, you’ve complicated the question, since there’s no sad ending on Whatever Works.

  9. Nancy Brennan

    re. “no sad endings for me”, I didn’t necessarily think Whatever Works, did have a sad ending, just making a general statement. I may go see it since the trailer appeared to be quite funny.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I may go see it since the trailer appeared to be quite funny.

    Well, obviously I did think it was funny — as did Justin and a friend who was with us, as did the audience we saw it with. But there’s nothing as subjective as what’s funny. I’ve sat through things like R.V. where the audience was by and large laughing a good deal. I was simply baffled by the response, because none of it was funny to me.

  11. Marcianne Miller

    Ken, regardless of when Mr. Allen wrote the awful thing, he released it this year so the movie should be judged by that date. Mr. Allen’s personal life is not the issue. I don’t like Alec Baldwin screaming obscenities on the phone at his young daughter but I can still appreciate his work as an artist. I’m not opposed to older/younger relationships per se. Not at all!

    Here’s the important difference between these two movies with older/younger partners. In Whatever Works the older partner is nasty, insulting, neurotic, controlling, walks around in his undies and a shabby bathrobe,imagines himself witty when he’s merely obnoxious–in essence he’s a growup clone of Mr. Allen’s well-known neuroses and as such he is totally without joy of any kind except for his love of classical music (his only redeeming quality in my mind.) Joyless people are the most boring people on the planet. Stories about them are boring. A glorious young hot-blooded creature falls into this guy’s lap (that’s the cliche fantasy) and he doesn’t have to do one thing to make himself more lovable (the further fantasy). At least we can bless Woody Allen for letting this fantasy last only a year before the young thing falls in love with a more appropriate man — someone who actually says nice things to her from minute one.

    In Cheri the older partner is totally gorgeous, smart, generous, full of the joy of living, and comes to love the young man with every fiber of her being even though she knows he will eventually have to her. Their relationship lasts six years. Cheri is a love story. Whatever Works is not — it’s a fairy tale. A chasm of difference between the two movies.

    Give me a movie about joyful people, even if it ends sadly, than a movie about joyless neurotics, even if it ends happily.

    Cheri is one of the best movies of the year (as is Easy Virtue). Whatever Works is one of the worst.

    I’ll agree to bow out of the discussion at this point. Thanks all!

  12. Ken Hanke

    Ken, regardless of when Mr. Allen wrote the awful thing, he released it this year so the movie should be judged by that date.

    The film perhaps should, but you’re the one who dragged in the “another one of his old man/young woman fantasies” aspect of it. What I’m pointing out is that at 41 when he wrote, it was the first such and that he certainly wasn’t fantasizing about hot babes 40 years his junior when he did so.

    In Whatever Works the older partner is nasty, insulting, neurotic, controlling, walks around in his undies and a shabby bathrobe,imagines himself witty when he’s merely obnoxious—in essence he’s a growup clone of Mr. Allen’s well-known neuroses and as such he is totally without joy of any kind except for his love of classical music (his only redeeming quality in my mind.)

    Well, I don’t entirely agree with that reading in that I see a character who is afraid to be joyful more than one who is without joy of any kind. Plus, you aren’t factoring in the fact that this beautiful young girl is pretty darn dim. In any case, he’s not a great deal more joyless than the Woody Allen character of Annie Hall — just older and more slovenly (the latter seems kind of beside the point).

    Moreover, there’s just as little to recommend the object of Michelle Pfeiffer’s affections in Cheri — except that the equation goes in the other direction. What does Cheri offer except youth and a callow, almost feminine, beauty? He’s pretty vapid anyway you look at it — and he’s just as self-involved, joyless and obnoxious as the older man in Whatever Works and with less reason. I understand why Pfeiffer would be attracted to him, but the overall dynamic is still shaky. As for one film being a fairy tale, I’d say they both are. I accept the ending of Cheri, but I don’t exactly buy it. It’s difficult to say more without saying more about the film than should be said. But I don’t see a “chasm of difference” between the two movies, except in style.

    I would, however, agree that Cheri and Easy Virtue among the best movies of the year so far — though The Brothers Bloom beats them both for me. However, as far as I’m concerned, so is Whatever Works.

  13. Justin Souther

    I managed to catch a matinee of Whatever Works earlier today (which, by the way is my second time watching it).

    For the record, the house appeared to be sold-out, and if it wasn’t it was pretty close. While there’s no practical way for me to tell if everyone was enjoying themselves, the amount of laughter alone led me to believe that the vast majority of the audience was won over. In fact, I’d say this crowd gave the film a better reception than the people in attendance the first time I watched the film last Friday, not in the least due to the healthy round of applause today’s crowd gave the film — again, from a large majority of the audience — as the credits came up.

    And while I can’t completely speak for her, a female friend of mine who watched it with me said that Whatever Works might be her favorite Woody Allen film, and that includes Annie Hall and (if memory serves) Love and Death(though I did tell her I wouldn’t let her make that decision until she watched Manhattan and Stardust Memories). So there’s that.

  14. Ken Hanke

    I did tell her I wouldn’t let her make that decision until she watched Manhattan and Stardust Memories

    No one should attempt a “favorite Woody Allen picture” without seeing those two, I grant you.

  15. TokyoTaos

    I agree with Marcianne Miller generally about how annoying Woody Allen’s penchant for making movies about neurotic (and completely self-centered) older men somehow attracting beautiful young women has always been – and more so as he got progressively older and older in each film while the women stayed young and starry eyed. And to be honest when I first read Ken’s review I expected to find Whatever Works similarly annoying. I was pleasantly surprised though – I’m not even sure I can pinpoint exactly why this particular film didn’t exasperate me like his other films where “an unlikeable, neurotic, verbose, curmudgeon who, by a twist of fate, earns the love of a sweet beauty 40 years his junior …” Maybe because it wasn’t Woody Allen this time? Maybe because Larry David’s portrayal of this oh-so-familiar Woody Allen character actually had a touch of heart to it? Maybe because in this case it was believable that this dimwitted and big-hearted young woman could mistake his snobbiness as ‘worldliness’ and his neurosis as ‘genius’? Maybe because in the end the young woman wakes up from her innocent admiration for him (while still feeling compassion towards him)? I don’t know; I just know I enjoyed the film. I especially loved how the young woman’s parents evolve and free themselves by truly being themselves (however kinky that might be).

  16. Ken Hanke

    Maybe because it wasn’t Woody Allen this time? Maybe because Larry David’s portrayal of this oh-so-familiar Woody Allen character actually had a touch of heart to it? Maybe because in this case it was believable that this dimwitted and big-hearted young woman could mistake his snobbiness as ‘worldliness’ and his neurosis as ‘genius’? Maybe because in the end the young woman wakes up from her innocent admiration for him (while still feeling compassion towards him)?

    My guess is it’s a little of all those things — combined with the fact that the screenplay is 32 years old and written for someone other than Allen in the first place — and from a time when it wouldn’t be a personal fantasy.

    Really, the only of Allen’s films that occur to me that work the dynamic of Allen as the older man with the significantly younger woman are Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending, but those are more in the late period Bob Hope movie territory — where the age difference is simply ignored, like we’re supposed to believe Woody is 40ish rather than 60ish. By the time of Scoop he’s moved to a completely unromantic state.

  17. mchrist

    I thought this movie was hilarious. Any real qualms with it seem like they would have to be dragged from the land of over-thinking. Whoever says it’s creepy because of the relationship between Boris and Melody obviously bases their idea of love on appearance and standardized societal views. Get over it, it’s humor after all.

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