'Whatever Works' Doesn't

Woody Allen's Latest, An Anti-romantic Comedy, Comes Off As Unbelievable * ( 1 Star)

July 03, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Whatever Works makes more of a demand on a viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief than movies about vampires or giant robots. Would a dewy-fresh Southern gal named Melodie St. Anne Celestine marry a New York City curmudgeon named Boris Yellnikoff - especially when he's played by Larry David in an amateurish bluster sure to curb anyone's enthusiasm? It's easier to believe that the lovely and talented actor who plays Melodie, Evan Rachel Wood, in real life has coupled with Marilyn Manson, the shock rocker.

The conceit of Woody Allen's anti-romantic comedy is that Yellnikoff's lofty disdain for everything except his own intelligence proves seductive to Melodie, a Mississippi-bred runaway so life-affirming that she makes callowness irresistible. The huge gap between their ages matters less to the audience than Yellnikoff's complacent egotism and his lack of curiosity over what Melodie has on her mind. Of course, for long stretches she does appear to be simply the prettiest of parrots. But even a proud intellectual brute like Boris would have to recognize that his favorite put-downs - "cretin," say, or "inchworm" - sound more open and innocent when Melodie says them.

Melodie can be slow and literal. She takes Boris at his word that his limp comes from an athletic injury instead of a suicide attempt. But he should appreciate her capacity for independent thinking and feeling, especially when she says that from the time she lost her virginity she found sex natural and enjoyable.

Instead, Boris simply lets her create a home life for him around his quirks and eccentricities. When her mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), arrives and immediately sets out to fix her daughter up with someone else, Boris doesn't see that there's real danger ahead. Everyone else does, including the audience. Wood is effervescent as Melodie. We know she can't stay bottled up in Boris' Chinatown walk-up forever.

David is achingly awkward as Boris - you wish he would stop yammering and keep out of sight. David is terrible here, inert and uninflected: the most nightmarish of all "talking heads." He's become king of the comedy of cringe on his own brilliant HBO series, but he is lost without his own stuttering rhythms and oddly compelling persona as a man who can slip on a banana peel and fall into a moral abyss.

Yellnikoff is a know-it-all who doesn't know how lucky he is. Could this role have worked with anyone else in it? Allen wants us to assume that Yellnikoff is a very smart man because he's a nuclear physicist who understands quantum mechanics and once was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Nothing in his barrage of sophomoric wisecracks backs that up. The idea that Marx and Jesus both made the mistake of thinking man was good? That wouldn't have passed muster during Allen's NYU days.

Allen's level of comic construction here is as poor as his verbal invention. We recognize Allen's trademark turnarounds too well now. Once Boris lists the virtues of his wealthy, beautiful, brilliant first wife (Carolyn McCormick) we know that he'll say their marriage makes him miserable. Once Melodie's mom and dad (Ed Begley Jr.) start circulating in Greenwich Village, we can bet they won't be uptight and middle-class for long. The cafe schmoozing of Boris and his friends makes you yearn for the best scenes in Broadway Danny Rose.

"Hello, I Must Be Going," sings Groucho Marx in a clip from Animal Crackers at the start of the film. If I'd known what followed, I would have followed his advice.

'Whatever Works'

(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations and brief nude images. Time 92 minutes.

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