Its title alone, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, evokes creative lethargy, and indeed the script was dug out of a desk drawer caked in 30 years of dust. But no one ever accused Woody Allen of trying to be up-to-date—not even Woody Allen. So if the stray signs of contemporary life spied in the margins of the Manhattan Chinatown locations are just about the only things that keep Whatever Works from feeling like 1979, well, the comic sensibility driving the film is of a considerably elder vintage anyway. And if we like Woody, we’re hardly bothered by his tending to the flame of old-old school humour accompanied by a soundtrack of even older records. “They really don’t write them like they used to,” says our protagonist Boris Yellnikoff. Though he has exclusive knowledge of his being watched by an audience and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, Boris seems somehow oblivious to the fact the movie he lives inside of is being written very much like they used to.
So another old curmudgeon strikes up an unlikely but not inconceivable romance with a nubile innocent, the pair enacting a variation on Pygmalion in which the professor provides lessons not so much in sophistication as cynicism. Boris is a windbag, a stupendously voluble misanthrope, the self-described intellectual superior of the vast majority of the human race, a fact he’s able to confirm regularly by teaching chess to talentless children who, naturally, he chastises mercilessly. At one point, he suggests that all parents should send their kids to concentration camp. He’s a total prick and makes no bones about it. But he has his vulnerable side: he’s deeply paranoid and superstitious, a failed suicide attempt has left him with a permanent limp, and he has regular middle-of-the-night panic attacks. He's also one of the worst-dressed people in a movie full of people who dress really, really bad.
He’s also got some sort of a soft spot, however small, one massaged by Melodie St. Ann Celestine, an absurdly cheerful Southern elf who Boris grudgingly takes into his home. She talks like an endearing idiot, though we assume must have sort of edge to her given that she had the gumption to leave a stable home and starve it out in the Big Apple all alone with nothing more than the near-uniformly pink clothes on her back. And we know she must possess some sense of discretion when she comes home disappointed after hearing a concert by some band called Anal Sphincter. We might suspect Boris of lecherous intentions but he makes it perfectly clear that he’s uninterested in sex. How these two manage to connect seems to have more to do with desperation and sublime timing.
The casting of Larry David as Boris seems inspired, the star of Curb Your Enthusiasm being a garrulous ranter of singular ability. It’s no stretch whatsoever to imagine David in the role of resident Allen stand-in. But maybe that’s the problem. Had David been forced to stretch a little more he may have been better able to play stakes convincingly, thus making the comedy more urgent and, we hope, funnier. (A few choice moments really fly, but more of them fall flat.) And he may have been able to convey more of a sense of Boris’ inner life, the house of all those kooky contradictions that Allen loves to play with. Boris finally seems like he should really have just been played by Allen, who, no matter how droopy the material, can virtually always make us believe that he’s truly falling in love. Or at the very least, lust.
Rounding out the cast, Even Rachel Wood does a pretty remarkable job of giving Melodie some sort of journey of self-discovery, and if the guy she inevitably leaves Boris for is complete tool—he’s a handsome actor who lives on a houseboat and plays the flute for Christ’s sake—well, perhaps there’s some truth to that sort of match. Patricia Clarkson plays Melodie’s mom and Ed Begley Jr. plays her dad, and they too manage to breathe a little life into their corny types, ie: Jesus-lovin’ Southern conservatives that only need a sojourn in funky ol’ New York with frank atheists like Boris to realize how much richer life can actually be when you redefine yourselves as pseudo-cultured bohemians. But regardless of the cast’s efforts, the unmistakable thinness of these characters, each of them essentially background players in a one-man show, combined with the limits of the story’s dynamics, dependent as it is on cliché plot twists, renders Whatever Works into passable Woody, but hardly must-see. At least it makes an effort to be genuinely optimistic in the end, which is surely not the easiest thing for Woody Allen and, for that alone, I confess I left the theatre with my cockles a little warmer than when I entered.