Friday, July 10, 2009

Whatever Works: Mostly successful

Whatever Works (2009) • View trailer for Whatever Works
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.09
Buy DVD: Whatever Works • Buy Blu-Ray: Whatever Works [Blu-ray]

Woody Allen's life and film career certainly have been a long and strange collective journey; at this point, it can become difficult to determine where one leaves off and the other takes over.

Since he has written and/or directed at least one film per year since 1971  a truly astonishing output  and is best remembered for idiosyncratic and extremely personal works such as Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters and Deconstructing Harry, one can't help believing that Allen has employed cinema to exorcise personal demons and struggle toward an understanding of life, the universe and everything.
Even when he's criticizing her, Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) cheerfully hangs
onto every word coming from Boris (Larry David), because she believes that
anything spoken by a "genius" must be worth embracing. Eventually, a funny
thing happens: Rather than diminishing Melody's vibrant, sunny nature, Boris
begins to perceive the flaws in his own behavior.

The delightful surprise, of course, is that so many of these highly personal films have succeeded as mass entertainment.

All of which brings us to Whatever Works, a quirky little comedy-drama that builds to Allen's current solution to the Big Secret: a Chimera he has chased since 1975's Love and Death. Whereas this pursuit and its possible answers were more complicated back in Allen's younger days, his epiphany now is encapsulated in this film's very title.

Love, happiness, job satisfaction and everything else in life are, as this film's Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) keeps reminding us, a fragile combination of luck and struggle to begin with: Ergo, we must do anything necessary  whatever works  in order to seize and hold onto it.

Even when peace and personal fulfillment involve thinking outside the box. Particularly when that's the case.

The problem, despite this film's upbeat message and truly delightful resolution, is that Yellnikoff  no accident, that last name  is such a bitter pill to swallow.

David, famous for his work in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, more or less takes that character to misanthropic extremes in this film. Boris is a cranky, miserable, world-class grouch who somehow hasn't managed to drive off the small coterie of friends necessary to serve as a reluctant audience for his endless rants about people, society and every topic from child-rearing to gun control.

A former Columbia professor and self-proclaimed genius who came close to winning a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, Boris now is known mostly for his failures: failed marriage, failed career and even a failed suicide attempt. He now spends his days insulting the small children unfortunate enough to study chess with him.

Allen originally wrote this role for Zero Mostel, but put the project aside after that actor's death; it has been resurrected and re-shaped for David. That may have been a mistake. I can see it working with Mostel, who could have made the shrill tirades and unhappy bluster work in much the same way W.C. Fields successfully jabbed at babies and small children so many years ago.

David's Yellnikoff, on the other hand, is simply nasty.

This problem becomes worse with the introduction of Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young runaway who fled her small-town life in Mississippi for a shot at something  we're never sure what  in New York City. Melody, sweet and naive to the extreme, is a poor target for Boris' sarcastic barbs; she's not smart enough to perceive that he's insulting her.

But we know, and the onslaught of verbal abuse becomes teeth-grindingly unpleasant. To a degree, the film never recovers from Boris' initial behavior toward Melody.

But while she may be lacking in smarts, Melody is oddly savvy; she quickly recognizes that Boris' bark is far worse than his bite. More to the point, he's kind enough to put her up for a few nights that blossom into weeks and months. He may regard her as no more than a wounded sparrow, but he does care for her; she, in turn, views him as a protector. An ill-tempered one, to be sure, but a protector nonetheless.

And because it's what small-town Mississippi girls would do under such circumstances, she marries him.


Ah, such wish fulfillment. Ah, such a panoply of sweet young things  Mira Sorvino, Scarlett Johansson and now Wood  who've succumbed, in Allen's films, to the charms of the filmmaker or one of his surrogates.

We are, thankfully, spared any attempt to actually show physical intimacy between our newlyweds; references are restricted to amusing side comments, such as the revelation that Melody keeps a ready supply of Viagra in her purse.

Fortunately, the sailing becomes more smooth after we swallow this difficult but essential plot element. As with Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the point of this March/December romance is that Melody is good for Boris; she calms and improves him.

It's also quite funny to see Melody's personality shift, as she mangles things such as string theory while awkwardly attempting to chat with other people. (Although, at the same time, we've an uneasy feeling that we're laughing at Melody, rather than with her.)

The greater question is whether Melody herself is getting anything out of this relationship. The answer is absolutely, and that's why the film becomes much more palatable as it progresses from its second to third act.

The transition is assisted by the arrival of Melody's estranged parents: first her mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), and eventually her father, John (Ed Begley Jr.). Both arrive in New York as ultra-conservative, Bible-thumping bastions of rigorously defined and enforced morality. (Small wonder Melody fled.)

Both ... change. Delightfully so.

Fiction is filled with tales of callow young men who have life-changing experiences with older women; Hollywood has successfully adapted many such stories, with Summer of '42 and the currently playing Cheri immediately leaping to mind. We tend to become uneasy when the equation is reversed, even if exaggerated for comic effect, as is the case here.

The degree to which Whatever Works succeeds, ultimately, is due to the character of Melody herself ... and Wood is marvelous in the role. Say what you will about Allen's motives, but he has an uncanny knack for drawing superior work from young actresses. Think of Mira Sorvino, in Mighty Aphrodite, or Samantha Morton, in Sweet and Lowdown, or Scarlett Johansson in Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Wood certainly belongs in their company: The actress who made such a strong impression as Mickey Rourke's estranged daughter in The Wrestler delivers a similarly fine-tuned performance here. Her Melody is uncomplicated but not exactly dumb, innocent but not pathetic. Wood makes us believe  the tilt of her head, the unexpected flutter of awareness in her gaze  that Melody's willingness to marry Boris is an informed choice, and that she's not being exploited.

More to the point, Melody matures before our very eyes, a transition that Wood delivers quite persuasively. When Melody finally observes, after one of Boris' rants, that he's like a child who throws a tantrum when he can't get his way, the older man is stunned by this display of insight. We, on the other hand, smile at this sign of the adult that Melody has become.

In many ways, the big screen may not be the proper home for Whatever Works; it feels much more like an intimate stageplay, and I suspect it could be mounted successfully on no more than three sets. The stage, too, would be a better vehicle for Boris' amusing manner of breaking the fourth wall as he address us directly: nothing unusual in that, except that the other on-screen characters see him do it, and repeatedly want to know who he's talking to. That is unusual.

I only wish David had given us a more palatable Boris Yellnikoff; that could have made Whatever Works one of Allen's better and brighter films.

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