Since his underrated nineties streak, Woody Allen has maintained his film-a-year pace with searching if erratic charm, pinballing between the lightest of comedies and his darkest dramatic impulses, sometimes within the same movie and often treading familiar paths. Whatever Works, which finds Allen back in Manhattan after several films in Europe, ricochets between any number of Woody touchstones: the philosophizing of Annie Hall, the misanthropy of Deconstructing Harry, the boyfriend as curmudgeonly mentor as seen in Manhattan and elsewhere.
Its greatest kinship, though, may be with his largely forgotten 2003 film Anything Else, in which Jason Biggs played the typical Allen neurotic, and Allen himself played the grumpy, unhinged mentor figure. Whatever Works is a more successful variation on that film's shoulder-shrugging philosophy, with the aging, limping, semi-suicidal self-diagnosed genius in the lead, referring to his fellow humans -- especially middle Americans and the religious -- as "morons," "inchworms," and "cretins," among others. Article continues below
The chief variation, besides this character's upgrade to leading man: It's not Allen who plays Boris Yellnikoff but Larry David, doing a scrappier, angrier spin on the Woody standard. David's presence gives the script, which, like a lot of recent Allen efforts, feels more like a rough draft, some jittery, irritable bite. While Allen has played hostile characters in recent years, his persona is so well-established that half the joke becomes the weird nerviness of his aggression. David looks and acts a bit more like the kind of crank that would send seventies Woody scurrying away to avoid confrontation, or, worse, imitation, becoming "one of those guys who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag, screaming about socialism."
David's surrogacy frees the movie up; suddenly a Woody Allen-ish character can walk around in shorts and an unkempt jacket, holler at children, and even live in a rustic (if still cavernous) downtown apartment. Like the presence of cell phones in Match Point, Whatever Works finds Allen inching towards acknowledgment of the modern world, or at least his cranky lack of interest in it. He finally shows his age not by appearing onscreen, but in hiring still-sixtysomething David to romance a decades-younger girl in his stead.
The girl in question is Melody St. Ann Augustine (Evan Rachel Wood), who turns up destitute on Boris's doorstep and winds up sticking around, first as a guest, then as sort of a platonic nursemaid to Boris's anxieties, and eventually, however improbably, as his wife. (Allen may give voice to blue-state rage, but he's not so liberal that he can abide a serious relationship that doesn't end in marriage.) Melody is outfitted with a cartoonish Southern naïveté -- she takes much of Boris's bile and sarcasm literally, yet with wide-eyed good humor, and she's a quick study -- and the gangly Wood embraces the role with cheer, flailing her arms around and rolling her head as she speaks. She continues in the fine Woody Allen tradition of actresses who get just as many laughs out of far fewer one-liners than our wisecracking hero, through strength of behavior and delivery. (I particularly love Melody's explanation of banter – "like flirty talk.")
As a study of a fleeting, unlikely, and fairly hilarious relationship between a crank and goofy Southern belle, Whatever Works mostly does. Unfortunately, the movie is padded out with far less interesting characters, the best of which is Melody's religious mother (Patricia Clarkson), initially aghast over her daughter's new lifestyle. The lesser characters seem to exist as ironic punchlines, extra bodies for a nominal story of coupling and uncoupling. Add Vicky Cristina Barcelona to the list of reference points.
It all turns out to be pretty good-natured, but in between one-liners and good performances, Allen's narrative odds and ends feel perfunctory, even resigned; Boris's opening monologues threaten to wrap the picture up before it even gets going. Whatever works for Allen, it seems, is perpetual motion, even when he's not sure where to go next.