- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
or a filmmaker as accomplished as Woody Allen, his track record really isn’t as great as it should be – particularly over the last decade or so, save for “Match Point” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” His latest New York-based film, “Whatever Works,” is yet another disappointing comedy that not only fails to break new ground, but completely wastes a promising partnership between Allen and fellow pessimist Larry David. Putting aside the fact that the movie is practically a retelling of his 1979 classic, “Manhattan,” “Whatever Works” is so sluggish and mean-spirited that it’s difficult to imagine even longtime fans of the director finding something to take away from the film.
David stars as Boris Yellnikoff, a self-proclaimed genius and former physicist who, after divorcing his wife and attempting suicide, moves from his trendy flat in Manhattan to a rundown apartment in Chinatown where he spends his days teaching chess to children and his nights arguing with his friends about the emptiness of life. When a naïve runaway named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) arrives on his doorstep looking for shelter, however, his entire world is turned upside down. Before long, the pair forms an unlikely relationship, with Boris serving as Melody's intellectual mentor, completely unaware that she's developing a small crush.
Of course, that alone isn’t enough to sustain a 92-minute movie, so Allen moves on to other characters instead – namely Melody’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.), who arrive in New York to discover that their daughter has married an old man whose neurosis is so bad that he superstitiously sings “Happy Birthday” every time he washes his hands. Begley Jr. has a very limited role, but Clarkson’s entrance in the second act spins off into an entirely new storyline where she joins the New York art scene, moves in with two lovers, and desperately tries to break up Melody’s marriage by introducing her to a handsome young actor (Henry Cavill). At this point in the film, Boris all but vanishes, begging the question, is Woody Allen himself sick of Woody Allen?
He certainly doesn’t do himself any favors, transforming the classic Allen persona from a loveable neurotic into an obnoxious cynic. Granted, he warns the audience that you won’t like him in the first of Boris' many long-winded monologues, but that doesn’t make it any easier to sit through. If there’s one person who could pull it off, though, it’s Larry David, who might be a pretty one-dimensional actor, but still manages to get some laughs out of an otherwise humorless script. Rachel Evan Wood is also good as the wide-eyed youngster, and it’s a shame that Allen hasn’t recruited her sooner, because she’s a much better actor than Scarlett Johansson could ever hope to be. If only her character could just stand up and walk away, because “Whatever Works” is all just a bunch of sitting around and complaining. Allen’s misanthropic philosophy might make for an interesting dinner discussion, but it doesn't make for an interesting film.