Imagine if Annie Hall had been forgotten in a Ziploc bag under your couch cushions and left there for 30 years. By the time you pulled out the bag, Alvy Singer’s endearing misanthropy would have decomposed into its constituent elements of vanity and contempt, and Annie’s charming naiveté would have curdled into ditzy cuteness. The New York City that once seemed like a living, breathing entity would be a desiccated and barely recognizable skeleton. In short, you wouldn’t be able to get the contents of that baggie to the trash can fast enough. That’s basically the experience of watching Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Whatever Works.
In a sense, this movie really has been lying around for 30 years; Allen originally wrote the script for Zero Mostel in the ‘70s, but Mostel died before the film could be made. Maybe it’s because Whatever Works is simultaneously an early and a late Woody Allen movie that watching it makes you reassess his entire oeuvre. Now that Allen’s (and, by extension, his alter egos’) behavioral tics have hardened into a personality disorder, it’s hard not to engage in some retroactive diagnoses: Did Allen always treat his leading ladies with such barely disguised scorn? Were the nostalgia-infused happy endings of better Allen films ( Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters) in fact as mawkish and pandering as the last scene of this one?
Larry David plays the Allen character, Boris Yellnikoff, a former Columbia physics professor who’s progressively isolated himself from all joy and pleasure in life. Divorced from his rich and beautiful wife after a failed suicide attempt, he lives alone in a hovel (read: a two-story downtown flat with exposed brick walls) and teaches chess to children (not as sweet as it sounds; he calls his young clients “vermin” and “mindless zombies”). Boris is a combination of snob and boor, exalting his own superior intellect while insulting everyone he meets to their faces. (In the opening and closing scenes, he even breaks the fourth wall to berate the audience directly.) He’s a hectoring crank, the most unlikeable Woody Allen protagonist since Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity. (I exclude the lead character in Deconstructing Harry, since Allen protagonists gain an unfair likability advantage when played by Allen himself.)
Boris’ life changes when he agrees to take in a vagrant Southern girl who shows up on his fire escape looking for shelter. Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) comes from Mississippi and wears heart-patterned sweat suits and tank tops printed with the word Smile. She’s enthusiastic and good-hearted but dumb as a rock (Melody’s adorable stupidity being a joke the script trots out at regular intervals). She stays at Boris’ apartment, cooking him crawfish dinners and hanging on his every crabby tirade, until the two of them fall (abruptly and weirdly asexually) in love.
Eventually Melody’s conservative Christian mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), arrives from Mississippi and tries to fix her daughter up with a younger and less cantankerous suitor (Henry Cavill). But New York has an unexpected effect on Marietta, just as it does on Melody’s father (Ed Begley Jr.), who follows his estranged wife into town sometime after. Erotic cross-entanglements ensue, pokily—the movie runs only 92 minutes, but it feels far longer, especially after Begley’s third-act appearance gives us a whole new subplot to wish we cared about.
The idea of wedding Woody Allen’s comic persona (the introverted nebbish) to Larry David’s (the entitled jerk) sounds promising on paper, but as Boris portentously observes just before his unsuccessful suicide attempt, life doesn’t take place on paper. Or maybe it does; certainly this movie takes place in no known universe outside a Woody Allen screenplay. Boris’ monomaniacal nihilism quickly becomes claustrophobic, and though Wood and Clarkson strain gamely to be charming, their roles are too sexist to allow for much wiggle room. Even when Wood’s character, Melody, begins to come into her own and shake off the pernicious influence of Boris, she never tells him to stop calling her a “submental baton twirler” who’s “stupid beyond comprehension”— she just sweetly tolerates his insults, and the viewer spends the last third of the film waiting for a comeuppance that never arrives. At least Annie Hall knew how to give as good as she got.
David’s protestations in interviews that he told Woody he wasn’t actor enough to play this role ring sadly true. It’s one thing to sustain a semiautobiographical sketch comedy for 25-minute installments on HBO; it’s quite another to rant in our faces about cosmic entropy for an hour and a half straight, and the fact is, David’s Boris is not so much a lovable curmudgeon as he is a priggish cocksucker. Most disheartening of all is that, after shooting four films in a row abroad, Allen seems to have lost his feel for New York locations. Instead of exploring the topography of Boris’ neighborhood, he cuts between isolated landmarks (the Yonah Schimmel knish bakery, a painted sign in Chinatown) as if filming on a set.
In a joint New York magazine profile of David and Allen last month, Mark Harris tries to dignify this movie’s failure by turning the Allen/David collaboration into a referendum on the decline of traditional Jewish humor. But if, like me, you sit through Whatever Works with a mortified poker face, don’t go blaming the Jews.
Slate V: The critics on Whatever Works and other new movies