Whatever Works opens Friday in select theaters
The amount of people for whom the phrase "Woody Allen's new comedy" sparks feelings of delight and anticipation has dwindled considerably in the last 15 years. And, while I can certainly understand why fewer people love Hollywood Ending than Bananas, I count myself among the diminishing number who admire his—to flip a popular line from Stardust Memories—later, funny films.
There are plenty of reasons for the recent comedies' lack of appeal, and his new film, Whatever Works, suffers from all of them: dialogue arrhythmia, miscast leading ladies, a lazy repetition of ideas and a feeling of narrative happenstance that makes the films feel ungrounded. But these movies are also loaded with moments of brilliance, bizarre hilarity, great physical comedy and a formal and aesthetic maturity.
Whatever Works stars Larry David, creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The largely improvised format of that show is probably what helps him be so good here, working with a director who is notoriously hands-off with his actors. Despite what you might think from watching the character he portrays on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the best thing about David in Whatever Works is what a perfect fit he is for Allen's brand of wary, compassionate humanism. He plays Boris Yellnikoff, a self-described (and probably actual) genius who was snubbed for a science Nobel and is now slumming it as a chess instructor. While Boris might register momentarily as simply a cantankerous crank, he is in fact a thoughtfully developed and acted character, one of the most fascinating ones in any of Allen's movies. It's clear from his goofy manner, his enviable friendships and his deep resentment of American bigotry against blacks that Boris is fascinated by people and—without admitting it fully to himself—might even love them.
The film begins in overly familiar Allen territory: friends sitting around a table in the middle of a conversation about Life's Big Issues. Things get interesting when Boris starts to address the camera, talking to an audience only he can see, deriding his friends for not knowing they're in a movie. This device has ambiguous implications. Is it Brechtian alienation? A statement about fate and predestination? Or just a goof? It works because David is personable, and Allen's free spiritedness with technique gives it an assured lightness. The way the device eventually resolves itself near the end of the film is thematically aggressive and gratifying.
After Boris gives us his backstory, he takes in a ditsy beauty queen from the South named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood, doing nothing to liven up an underwritten part), which sets up the initial momentum of the film. As the two get to know each other, Boris softens for Melodie, and she picks up some of Boris' prickliness. While the plot does wander down some unrewarding paths, there is something refreshing about the lack of direction in all of Allen's later comedies. I'm sure critics of Allen would say his narrative ambling shows that he doesn't know where he's going, but, as an audience member, I like that I don't know either. (Imagine how much better The Hangover would be if you didn't know where it was going to end up by the last act.) I can't help but wonder whether Allen gives his comedies this feeling by accident, or if—like Boris knowing that he is in a movie—it's a masterful stroke of self-awareness.
Allen moves from sunny flea markets, Chinatown sidewalks, high-ceilinged art galleries and floral corners of city parks to a small houseboat. The great location shooting around the city is pleasant enough to help the movie coast through some long unfunny stretches. In addition, the way Allen carelessly jumbles locations reads (at least to me) like a visual extension of his belief in the arbitrariness of everything.
In a 2002 review for the Indy, James Morrison wrote that Hollywood Ending "[is] not hilarious, but the jokes come at an easy, relaxed pace, and there's a good feel to the movie—like late Luis Buñuel. It feels like the work of a happy man, though as in Buñuel, it's no ordinary kind of happiness." You could certainly say that Whatever Works is not hilarious, but I'm far more interested in the increasingly unordinary universe and counterintuitive cheeriness of Allen's later comedies. While his latest movie isn't the funniest thing you could see this summer, it's probably the most unique, thoughtful and self-aware comedy you will see all year.