Grumpy old men

Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr. Michael McKean
Release Date: 2009-07-01
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Film

In his latest film, neurotic sometimes-genius Woody Allen offers a look at a May-December romance that’s so insightful, tender, and sometimes beautiful, you’ll leave the theater thinking it’s not at all gross or weird that Allen is currently fucking his ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter.


Just kidding, of course; that would be impossible. Allen does manage the near impossible here — depicting a romantic and sexual relationship between 61-year-old Larry David (playing, surprise!, a neurotic, dickish old Jewish dude) and 21-year-old Evan Rachel Wood without causing me or anyone in the screening I attended to puke in our popcorn. Let’s focus on that for a minute, because it’s Allen’s biggest (and I would argue only) achievement here, and he does it by mercifully keeping the camera the hell out of the bedroom. David’s crotchety former string-theory physicist Boris (for real) Yellnikoff and Wood’s runaway, possibly underage bumpkin Melody have the chemistry of a German shepherd and a coke whore, so Allen’s decision to limit their physical contact to an occasional arm around the shoulder was probably necessary to secure a PG-13 rating, but it’s also another assurance that he won’t be leaking a celebrity sex tape.

Allen stand-in Boris, who since his divorce and cartoonish failed suicide attempt lives alone with a set of crippling obsessions, flat-out hates sex — the empty machinations of which he compares to a “sewing machine” — and pretty much everything else. He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder so severe he can’t wash his hands without singing “Happy Birthday” to himself or (apparently) exhale without obnoxiously bitching about humanity’s failures. Though some of his bile is funneled toward the otherwise worldly and intelligent-seeming friends who absolutely would not put up with him in real life, most of Boris’s cynical, torturously unfunny observations are directed to you the viewer in a belabored fourth-wall scaling that was old when Allen did it 30 years ago.

Absolutely none of this changes, by the way, after Melody steps into the picture. A runaway Mississippi beauty queen, Melody just walks up to Boris at random and asks for food and shelter, a la Darryl Hannah in Blade Runner but sadly sans the android ambush, and Boris, for no discernable reason other than it must’ve been in the script, complies. More complaints, panic attacks, and insults ensue before the two get married, and by that time it’s obvious that Melody is no muse. Instead of reaffirming the joy of living for Boris, Melody plays home healthcare specialist and verbal punching bag. Boris calls her an “imbecile” and a “submental,” and Melody mistakes his insults and cynicism as signs of intelligence and stupidly parrots mangled and misunderstood versions his “theories” while bragging she’s the “wife of a genius.”

Even more annoying are Melody’s parents (Clarkson and Begley Jr.), who appear one at a time to collect her from the evil city and her geriatric husband. Within minutes of arriving, both of these backward, ignorant, fundamentalist Christians (is there any other kind of white person in Hollywood’s Mississippi?), are transformed — via scenes that take Allen’s “New Yorkers are superior to everyone else on the planet” attitude to a new level of condescension — into alternative-lifestyle bohemians.

Melody and Boris, meanwhile, have no character arcs at all. Boris ends the movie as he begins it, delivering an infuriating, monotonous monologue directly to whoever’s left in the audience. The point, he insists, is that life is violent and horrible and you have to cling to any happiness you can find in another human being, “whatever works.” It’s a valid idea that might’ve been a good starting point, but Allen makes it the entire film, throwing one-dimensional characters and predictable plot contrivances at it until the required 90 minutes pass. Boris and Melody are not irredeemable antiheroes but lazy characters created by a man who appears to have grown to hate every aspect of humanity.


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