If I were one of those critics who wrote for the marquee I would call Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Whatever Works,” “The pessimistic feel good movie of the year.” Allen’s latest alter ego, Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), would disagree with me. Boris, a comically misanthropic former college professor who has left his seemingly ideal upper Manhattan life and marriage to move downtown for a Bohemian existence as a children’s chess teacher, even turns to the camera and tells the audience that “this is not a feel good movie.”
Boris’ view of the human race and its place in the cosmos is relentlessly negative. He points out that Jesus and Karl Marx both had good ideas but that they were based on the concept of people being fundamentally gracious, which, Boris says, they are not. Boris’ philosophy for happiness in this haphazard world is the movie’s title, “Whatever Works.” While unlikely to take its place amongst Allen’s better films, “Whatever Works” is a silly, light, self-derivative farce, which, despite Boris’ pessimism, is ultimately life affirming.
The idea of Woody Allen directing a movie starring Larry David, known for his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and for co-writing TV’s “Seinfeld,” is certainly an irresistible combination. That concept alone is almost enough to carry the film. Add to Mr. David’s persona Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. as Marietta and John St. Celestine, a stereotypically-spoofed pair of southern conservative parents. They come to New York to rescue their young daughter, Melodie, from what they perceive as her den of inequity (living with Boris) but wind up learning a few things about themselves. Plus, there is Evan Rachel Wood as the beautiful, charming and naïve Melodie playing an Eliza Doolittle to Boris’ Henry Higgins. “He’s more of an outpatient and you’re his keeper,” an outraged Marietta tells her daughter.
I think that in Larry David, Allen may have found his ideal proxy. In recent films Allen has had other actors play the “Woody Allen” character. David’s “saying the things most people think but would never say” persona, perfected on “Curb,” seems to be the best fit yet (besides Allen himself) to express and anchor a story of Allen’s usual obsessions: the expanding universe, the meaninglessness of life, the role of luck, younger women and the Marx Brothers (Karl and Groucho).
The “Whatever Works” script was written years ago and originally intended as a vehicle for Zero Mostel. For an “Allenologist,” such as me, it is interesting to see the seeds of ideas that would be more developed in Allen’s later films, especially “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Boris is similar to Max von Sydow’s reclusive artist in “Hannah.” The idea of fate, or luck, determining happy pairings is also explored in that film.
So, is Woody Allen mining familiar territory at the expense of maybe creating deeper characters? Absolutely. Is he running out of things to say? Probably. Will Larry David be doing “Shakespeare in the Park” anytime soon? No, but there is one thing he plays pitch perfectly – Larry David. Is the movie funny? Yes. Hey, whatever works.
Whatever Works, director Woody Allen, 2009,
Sony Pictures Classics, 92 minutes, rated PG-13