Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review - Whatever Works

Whatever Works is the title of the new Woody Allen film, but we might be mistaken for thinking it's the mantra Allen has adopted in some of his recent features. In the past few years, Allen has tossed off a couple of movies that have the feel of an inconsequential shrug, and this one, which marks his return to his native New York, is no different. The fact that Whatever Works feels a little stale is perhaps unsurprising when we learn that Allen wrote this screenplay back in the 1970's before leaving it in a drawer for a few decades. Needing to fill a gap in his relentless production schedule, Allen recently retrieved the old script, dusted it off, and made a half-assed attempt at bringing it up to date with a few contemporary references – although when those references are at the level of "A black man can get into the White House, but he still can't get a cab in New York," you really wish he hadn't bothered.

Wherever you look it's standard Woody Allen fare, a recycling of storylines, characters and themes that he already covered in the years when he still had something to say. The Allen stand-in this time is Boris Yellnikoff and he's played by Larry David, in what appears at first glance to be a perfect storm of neurotic Jewish comics. This curmudgeonly character is a blend of Allen and David's distinctive styles, and David's delivery gives the script's misanthropic one-liners some weight, but David has never been much of an actor and his limitations are exposed during the course of the movie. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, David has surrounded himself with fine comic performers who can share the comedy burden, but he seems uncomfortable delivering many of the long speeches Allen has written for him, and his one-note performance precludes any real emotional investment in the character.

Most of Boris' tirades rail against the stupidity of people and the meaningless of life, and he repeatedly tells us what a charmless character he is to be around. Boris has both a ridiculous limp (a failed suicide attempt) and a superiority complex (he believes he's a genius and the only one who can see 'the big picture'), but in true Woody Allen style, there's a hot young blonde on hand to fall in love with him. Her name is Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), and she turns up at his door one night hungry and homeless, pleading with him to give her a bed for a night, an arrangement that lasts a lot longer than Boris originally intended it to. Melody is from the south and is a ditzy Allen bimbo in the tradition of Mighty Aphrodite's Mira Sorvino or Bullets Over Broadway's Jennifer Tilly. Wood plays her with a light charm and has a few good lines ("If you throw me out and I wind up an Asian prostitute, that's going to be on your conscience."), but did she really have to fall for Boris and end up marrying him? Oh Woody, give it a rest.

In Allen's worldview, everyone who lives outside New York appears to be a god-fearing hick, a notion that's reinforced when Melody's bible-bashing parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) turn up and are instantly transformed into free-loving bohemians by the big city. It's silly, unbelievable and not particularly funny, and at times Allen seems unsure of who exactly in his story to focus on; Boris takes a back seat for a large stretch of the picture while we watch Clarkson's Marietta loosen up and Melody get involved with a drippy British actor (Henry Cavill's Randy, who lives on a boat and says things like "I think, I read and I play my flute"). Some of these scenes are almost rescued by the ever-excellent Clarkson, who gives her thin caricature as much juice as she can, but there's only so much one woman can do.

Is Whatever Works funny? Sure, in fits and starts, but for the most part it's just flat and over familiar. Allen seems to have completely lost interest in the look of his films (Harris Savides is a great cinematographer, but the film suffers from clumsy compositions and ungainly lighting) and he is now simply repeating himself year on year, only occasionally showing flashes of the old inspiration. The message of Whatever Works is that life is short and death is coming, so try to take whatever happiness you can from your time on earth. Is Allen really happy churning out so many mediocre features? Has he got one last great picture in him? It's just over a decade ago that he was making films as diverse and clever as Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry and Everyone Says I Love You. I'd like to think Woody Allen will surprise us with one more masterpiece that bears comparison to his greatest works, but he seems satisfied just moving from one half-baked picture to the next, shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Whatever."