Whatever Works Review
It seems to me that Woody Allen has been coasting on his early and mid-period successes of the 1970s and the 1980s for some time now. By my reckoning, the last classic Woody Allen film was probably Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989, and while there have been the occasional flashes of form post-1990 – Husbands and Wives, Celebrity and most recently Vikki Christina Barcelona – most of his output over the last twenty years, if it’s even released in the UK, has been fairly forgettable (anyone remember much about Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite or Anything Else?).
If his output has been inconsistent, at least it’s been regular, and if the latest Woody Allen film inevitably disappoints, well, there’s probably already another one in the can and another one currently being shot. Coasting on a firm reputation built on Annie Hall and Manhattan, consolidated by Hannah and her Sisters, Radio Days and the aforementioned Crimes and Misdemeanors – a reputation it has to be said higher in Europe than it is in the United States – the memories of those better days, frequently evoked in his imperfect more recent films, is clearly enough to keep the director in business, because is sure as hell isn’t the quality or the success of his last film. The reliance on those with long-term memories to draw in audiences (as opposed to “crowds”), might also explain why the combined ages of a very small audience at a Woody Allen film will probably work out higher than a reasonably well-attended popular current release.
The best thing you can say then about Woody Allen’s latest film Whatever Works (with You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger in the can and Midnight in Paris already in the works), is that it evokes more memories of his previously great films than it does his more recent films. What probably works to the film’s advantage in this respect is the return to the more familiar haunts of his hometown of New York and to the quirky characters that inhabit its rundown apartment blocks and sidewalk cafes, Allen consequently on much more solid ground than his unrealistic perspective on English and Spanish lifestyles. And while Allen doesn’t take on the lead role himself, he finds in Larry David a perfect substitute for his familiar pessimistic, neurotic, hypochondriac and misanthropic rants about the state of the modern world and the impossibility of finding any kind of stability or meaning within it. So rarely in this miserable existence, does any fleeting moment of love or happiness come your way that you’d best grab a hold of it in whatever form it comes – whatever works.
Also a familiar variation on that theme from Woody Allen films, going right back to Manhattan, is not to ask questions or worry too much about it, but thank your lucky stars when the chance comes along for a much older man to get some romantic interest from a very young, pretty and dumbly naïve young woman. What are you gonna do? Turn it down like a fool? Even if it looks a bit sleazy to outsiders? Even if it’s never gonna last? Hey – whatever works! Sadly, even with Larry David in the lead role, this isn’t really any more palatable or convincing than when it’s Woody as the romantic male lead (even if the little bit dim Melody does at one point confuse Boris with an Academy Award winning director).
What does work is how Woody delightfully pushes the character of Boris Yellnikoff to extremes. He’s not so much irascible and grouchy as downright rude and offensive, speaking his mind, secure in his superiority, not caring if the object of his unreasonable and disproportionate ire is an old friend or an irate mother furious at him whacking her six year-old child over the head with a chess set for making stupid moves during the chess lessons he gives. Nothing and no-one is spared the hysterical rants of Boris as he rails against all aspects of modern American life – not just the predictable targets of organised religion, small-town middle-America and the NRA (all of which are amusingly conflated), but also against any way of living that doesn’t match his own eccentric standards, whether it be exercise, health-food fads and healthy living or summer camps (he thinks kids would be better off being sent to concentration camps), and even then, he frequently entertains suicidal thoughts about the point of it all. Until one day he finds a young woman, Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a young innocent hick and former beauty queen from Mississippi, resting in the garbage outside his apartment and reluctantly, with many an offensive and abusive remark, eventually agrees to take her in for a day or two.
As fun and enjoyable as it may be for older fans of Woody Allen to reminisce on better, funnier films that this situation evokes (in particular his characteristic breaking down of the fourth wall in Boris’s direct to the camera rants), Whatever Works isn’t going to win the aging director any newer fans. While those older fans may be inclined to look indulgently on the evident technical flaws in an overly schematic script that lacks naturalism and doesn’t look like it’s gone beyond first-draft (Allen could probably knock this out in his sleep), and are prepared to accept cardboard cut-out stereotypical characterisation and awkward performances that have a first-take-good-enough-why-bother-with-reshoots quality, anyone else is going to see this as a barely competent (and sometimes downright incompetent) piece of filmmaking. For Woody Allen fans however, this is as funny as he’s been for a long while and in such circumstances you take what you can get. Whatever works.