Whatever Works says that you should adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of things. And since that message could become sickeningly upbeat, director Woody Allen casts as the messenger curmudgeon Larry David.
The Misanthropic Principle
PG-13 for sexual situations, thematic material
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a retired physics professor living in Manhattan (where else?). Boris thinks he should have gotten a Nobel prize for his work in string theory. He’s quick to judge anyone and everyone as a moron, and he’s often right.
He teaches chess to “zombie children” unworthy of his attention. A mother complains that Boris hit her child with the chess board. He corrects her, pointing out that he merely dumped the pieces on the child’s head because “your child is an imbecile.” Looking at it objectively, it’s practically the child’s own fault that Boris would assault a him with bishops and pawns.
He walks with a limp because of a failed suicide attempt, but so what? We’re all dead anyway so what does it matter? Whatever works.
Into his misanthropic little life falls Boris’ opposite, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood). She’s a southerner fresh off the turnip truck, ready to try to make it in the Big Apple. She talks her way into his apartment just for a night off the street and, this being a comedy, ends up staying a very long time. Melodie is deaf to Boris’ insults, but she’s very attuned to his demeanor. One night she goes out with a new boyfriend and returns home bored by the inane chattering of the zombie imbeciles of her own generation.
As in Woody Allen’s better films, Whatever Works offers good dialogue, especially some snappy one-liners tossed off between old friends (“If it wasn’t for sexual inadequacy, the NRA would go broke”). Allen lets Boris break the fourth wall and comment on his own situation, letting us in on his critique of the world — I guess Woody doesn’t want us to think we were the targets of Boris’ disdain.
And yes, I admit, sometimes I share Boris’ jaded view of humanity. But Boris carries the insults too far, even for even his grumpy old friends. Melodie starts describing her father and before she can finish her sentence, Boris is already criticizing him as an gun-toting, born-again cracker. And later, feeling sorry for himself when Melodie goes out without him, he passive-aggressively wishes her a good time at her fish fry or dog fight or “whatever you people do.”
The characters don’t seem to be much of a stretch for any of the actors. David seems especially at home in Boris. His loyal circle of friends (including a bit part for Michael McKean) discuss art and politics at a table Woody Allen would feel welcome at. Patricia Clarkson shows up as Melodie’s southern-fried mom, but she quickly sheds it all for a New York state of mind.
All in all, Whatever Works is a Woody Allen lark, and not much more.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Here in urban flyover country, Larry David and Woody Allen plays pretty well, but Whatever Works is probably not amusing to some Americans. What Allen’s movie really says is: whatever works — so long as you adapt to an east-coast Manhattan way of life and give up your own regional culture. Then again, they are Allen’s characters, and they all really do have a little inner New Yorker in them trying to get out.
Another critique from another direction is that Allen could have done much more with the material. Another critic pointed out that a deeper, funnier, and more dramatic movie might have seen Boris softening to Melodie’s way of thinking just as she starts softening to his. Why not let the culture drift the other way a little? Or, it could have tried to be more Pygmalion-like. But as Boris himself says, that’s not who he is. After all, what would a curmudgeon who throws chess pieces at children really know about molding a young lady.
No, instead, the situation is just a space for jokes and observations about contrasts. And with the important caveat David throws in at the beginning (“as long as you don’t hurt anybody”), the obvious way to cope with different people and cultures is to throw up your hands and shrug your shoulders and say “whatever works.”