Review Of Whatever Works
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/22/09
I have often said that great art is hermetic, meaning that it is often at such a level of conception and execution that most people simply cannot even comprehend how the great art was conceived and wrought. But, lesser art that still has moments of greatness, opens up the art to be accessed and then studied and possibly replicated. Such was rarely as obviously displayed as in Woody Allen’s latest film, the comedy Whatever Works. I have seen every Woody Allen film, save the film just prior to this, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and- unless that film defies all expectations set by Allen’s post-Golden Age films (1993-present; the Golden Age was 1977-1992)- I can confidently say that the film world will never see another Woody Allen masterpiece along the lines of Hannah And Her Sisters, Stardust Memories, Radio Days, Crimes And Misdemeanors, nor Another Woman. It is simply beyond Allen now. But, in many of these lesser films of the last decade and a half, one can see Allen so thoroughly cribbing from earlier, greater works that it is tempting to rebuke him for it. Whatever Works has stylistic, narrative, and rhythmic larcenies from almost every major Allen film from Annie Hall to Husbands And Wives, and almost none of the thefts are the equal of the original. Yet, by seeing how these scenes, exchanges, and relationships fail, one can only greater appreciate the earlier, vintage Allen all the more. But, the biggest thing missing from the films of recent vintage is the stellar camera work that defined Allen’s Golden Age, mostly with cinematographic masters like Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist. Most of these post-Golden Age films are merely pedestrian visual works with lesser scripts.
Now, on the plus side, when he’s on, Allen has been near great, in films like Sweet And Lowdown, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream. And, he’s wisely made the choice to disappear from most of his recent films. In this case, it’s the wise choice, for Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), as the film’s lead character, brings an aggressiveness that Allen could never muster, and it’s what makes the reworking of many classic Allen themes and bits a bit fresher. The tale is told in a flashback, by a particle physics Nobel Prize nominee, Boris Yellnikoff, a curmudgeon with Allenesque tendencies tempered by disgust. The film recounts Boris’s meeting and marriage with his second wife, a Southern waif named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood). Boris does the Pygmalion thing, albeit unwillingly at first, and one has to accept that in Allen’s universe a sweet young piece of ass like Melody would get attached enough to a crotchety and abusive old cur like Boris to make the film take off (Soon-Yi anyone?). But, accepting that, the rest of the film has the most and deepest belly laughs of any Allen film since the aforementioned Sweet And Lowdown, which featured Sean Penn’s greatest acting role. The film brings in a string of archetypes and caricatures, yet somehow makes the viewer actually like these people. Melody’s mother and father appear on her doorstep, after they’ve split up. The mother (Patricia Clarkson) soon drops her Southern belle act and becomes a polyamorous pornographer who lives in a ménage-à-trois with two Jewish art professors in SoHo, while her father (Ed Begley, Jr.) quite predictably comes out of the closet as a homosexual. His coming out scene, in structure, reminds one of many a scene in a Yasujiro Ozu film, save that Allen goes all out burlesque. The mother eventually breaks Boris and Melody up, by interposing a young British suitor, and Boris attempts a second suicide (his first failed, but precipitated his first ‘perfect’ marriage’s breakup over its being too rational), and lands on his third wife, a psychic who claims she knew he was going to hospitalize her. The film ends at a New Year’s celebration (see Radio Days), with Boris uttering his oft-repeated mantra throughout the film, that life is best when one accepts whatever works for oneself.
Is David a great actor? No. But, the scene where Melody dumps him, does pull some heartstrings- not so much because it is so well acted (and Wood’s performance is, bar none, the worst in the film) but so realistically written, even amidst the outrageousness of the whole premise that this marriage could be remotely believable. And, that’s the thing that makes this film valuable, if merely a good, solid piece of cinema with many really funny scenes. Another point that makes this film worth seeing is that it is relentlessly topical and socially engaged. Much has been made of the fact that the film was originally penned over three decades ago, in the hopes that Zero Mostel would have played the Boris character, but the timelessness of the sentiments and characters/caricatures (whether one agrees with them or finds them silly) plays nicely against the topical rants that Boris laces into- and this is something not seen since Annie Hall. Again, the earlier film is significantly better, but trying to imagine Mostel as Boris shows why sometimes fate’s intervention can be a good thing. But, while it is easy to fault this film for its reuse of old Allen schticks and obsessions, as well as stereotypes (two flaws that were present but surmounted in past Allen fare like Manhattan) and too many meaningful coincidences (a sin too often seen in lesser Dumbest Possible Action driven films yet absent in Golden Age Allen films), the real reason this film fails is one unique to this film: and that is the structural digression, midway into the film, that makes Boris a third wheel in what is essentially his tale. The film starts off and ends with some terrific monologues by David, but once Melody’s parents enter the plot, we follow their journeys a bit too long, while Boris falls to the wayside. This would not be a problem in a deeper film, or a film where the digression was better constructed and served a better purpose, but it seriously knocks the film’s pacing out of whack, to the point that only the film’s ending and sweetness save it from mediocrity.
As it is, Whatever Works will be seen as one of Allen’s better post-Golden Age comedies, but, as always, one is left with the disappointment that this was not a Broadway Danny Rose, nor even a The Purple Rose Of Cairo. In fact, Boris ends the film much as Mia Farrow’s character in Purple Rose does, finally seeing the Big Picture (a hard thing for particle physicists), save that his has a happy ending (see Hannah And Her Sisters) whereas hers was realistic. What lessons can be inferred from that may hold the clue to why Allen will never achieve filmic greatness again. Regardless, the post-Golden Age Allen has rarely been funnier, and Allen’s late stage films surely best those of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman- the two giants of cinema he’s most stolen from, even when he’s actually improved on their works (see 8½ and Amarcord vs. Stardust Memories and Radio Days, or Wild Strawberries vs. Another Woman). So, not bad, as second acts go. Take that, F. Scott!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the No Ripcord website.]
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