Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Whatever Works

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Cavill, Michael McKean
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Could there possibly be a better idea than having Larry David star in a Woody Allen movie? He does a better Woody Allen than Woody Allen. The only idea I can think of that comes close is casting Evan Rachel Wood as his wife. Your level of appreciation for Allen's latest New York-set comedy, Whatever Works is entirely dependent on how you feel about David as a comedian. If you love the brand of self-loathing comedy he dishes out on Curb Your Enthusiasm, this movie is your dream come true. If not, then you'll hate it. It's that simple. Me? I think he's a comic genius and was counting down the days until he was given an opportunity to finally star in a feature film. The teaming of these two comic minds doesn't disappoint. But what's even more hilarious than anything that happens in it is Allen actually thinking he would attempt to give a real performance. He had to know that his star would just make fun of the material.

As David would be more than willingly admit, he isn't necessarily a good actor, but he's perfect for the role and the entire reason the film succeeds. This is an unproduced script Allen dusted off from the 1970's and it really feels (and even looks) like it, with dated humor and references that when delivered/mocked by David all of the sudden become a lot less dated and much funnier. We can congratulate Allen for not only realizing he was too old to play the role himself, but casting a youngster who does a better job than he ever could in not just hiding the flaws in the script, but making them work in the movie's favor.

The primary appeal of the film is that David seems as befuddled as we are that he's starring in a Woody Allen movie. As Boris Yelnikoff, an eccentric chess teacher from Greenwich Village who "almost" won the Nobel Prize for physics, he even pauses to break the fourth wall and tell us how befuddled he is in the opening minutes. When he's not complaining about life, he's berating kids, dumping chessboards on their heads and insulting their mothers. A cynical misanthrope prone to panic attacks, his most memorable one caused him to jump out of his apartment window and shatter his leg after his wife told him she was leaving him. He now walks with a limp, which David hilariously overplays.

Boris' world of rigid routine and order is disrupted when a runaway from Mississippi named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Wood) shows up outside of his apartment looking for a place to crash. After some coaxing he agrees and discovers the bubbly, airheaded beauty pageant contestant is just about the only person he's ever met not just willing to put up with his neurotic behavior, but loves it. Naive and unaffected by everything around her, she views his petulant diatribes as brilliant nuggets of wisdom and develops a serious crush. Just the thought of that is hilarious in itself, but how Boris' handles the information is even more priceless. They get married with Melodie becoming more his caregiver than wife. With the arrival of Melodie's estranged parents Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.), the film goes from being funny to being so stupid that it's funny.

The introduction of all these supporting characters relatively late in the game (including a potential love interest for Melodie played by Henry Cavil) does kind of throw everything off balance, but in sort of a good way. That's because David is there to mock them and Allen's attempt to tie life lessons up in a bow before the final credits roll. There's this underlying feeling running through the third act that Allen, who's completely stuck in an Annie Hall time warp, thought he was making an enormously important picture about the transforming energy of New York and that in the face of self-doubt and chaos everyone has to find their place in the world and do "whatever works" best for them. But what's so funny about that is Allen's seemingly silly message becomes digestable and almost strangely profound because of David's performance...as himself. Or rather a slightly nastier version of the "himself" he plays on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He makes it okay for us to go along for the ride because he never takes anything seriously. Wood, more known for playing sullen teenagers, tackles a type of role we've never seen her in and perfectly compliments David's neurotic insanity. She plays it completely sweet and sincere and it's a surprise to discover she's this good at comedy.

It also helps that Patricia Clarkson is such a lively presence as Melodie's uptight, religious mother and, as usual, the underrated Ed Begley, Jr. steals the few scenes he's in as the ultra-conservative but clueless dad. Both their sub-plots are ludicrous, but they sell it like pros and David's sarcastic reaction to their arrivals helps a lot. Ironically, the end result seems close to what Allen must have been aiming for and it could be considered his most enjoyable comedy in years, ending a string of lackluster efforts interrupted only by the drama Match Point in 2005. All he had to do was dust off one of his old scripts and insert Larry David. Maybe we should just insert David into every movie from now on. At least we'd be guaranteed to laugh, if nothing else. Hardly a minute went by when David was onscreen that I didn't. Insults are just funnier when delivered in his dry, deadpan style.

Not surprisingly, public response to the film has been unfairly harsh and it's fun to imagine how much worse a review David would give it and himself than the critics who trashed it. They missed the point. He doesn't have to be a good actor. He just has to be himself. A big monologue comes at the end with Boris telling us what he's learned. Yeah, right. It's Larry David. We know he never learns anything. But thanks to him, Whatever Works works.

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