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Whatever Works

Another Allen Misfire

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

If Whatever Works, the latest film from prolific filmmaker Woody Allen, is any indication, it’s time for the well-past-his-prime Allen to take a respite from filmmaking, perhaps even a permanent one. A stale, tired rehash of ideas and themes that first appeared thirty years ago and have since been recycled repeatedly, but with Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm", "Seinfeld") taking over as the neurotic misanthrope moviegoers are expected to love, Whatever Works is, sadly a minor work from a filmmaker fading quickly into the twilight of his career.

Allen anchors Whatever Works in the relationship between the older (as in significantly older), misanthropic, neurotic Boris Yellnikoff (David), a divorced, retired physicist and chess teacher, and a significantly younger, naïve, beautiful Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a deep south ex-pat who’s moved to New York City for the usual reasons. Boris literally runs into the homeless Melodie outside his apartment building and, in an unconvincing fit of compassion, invites her into his apartment, ostensibly for just a night. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and a relationship develops between Boris and Melodie. Melodie’s empty head duly absorbs Boris’ misanthropic ravings and, eventually, inexorably, Boris and Melodie become intimate and even marry.

The first incursion into Boris’ blissful domesticity occurs when Melodie’s bible-thumping mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), appears at their doorstep and promptly moves in. Unhappy with Boris as a husband for Melodie, Marietta attempts to pair up Melodie with a British actor, Randy James (Henry Cavill), closer to Melodie’s age, while shedding her superficial sexual and social inhibitions like worn-out clothing and becoming an art gallery favorite for the “primitive” photos she took in her former life as a Southern matriarch. Eventually, Melodie’s wayward, philandering father, John (Ed Begley, Jr.), also shows up at her doorstep, desperate to be reconciled with Marietta, but unaware of the radical changes New York City has caused in her personality and behavior.

Boris may be one of the least likeable characters in Allen’s oeuvre, but his elitist, misanthropic ramblings should have given Allen the opportunity for the verbal dexterity and wordplay synonymous with his name, but doesn’t. He’s a bitter curmudgeon, a cranky hypochondriac, and an unreconstructed misanthrope. He claims to hate the world and everyone in it, but in fact he hates himself and his own inadequacies, he hates himself for his failures as a husband, father (maybe, his son's mentioned once, but never makes an appearance), and scientist. For Allen, however, Boris' failures are just one obstacle to self-realization and personal redemption through a romantic relationship with Melodie due to her physical beauty and youth.

If we’re expected to take Whatever Works at face value, Southerners are dim and uneducated (Melodie), sexually repressed, fearful, bible-thumpers (Marietta), or sexually confused gun nuts (John). It’s just one more sign (the clearest being his obsession with women barely out of their teens) that even a filmmaker of Allen’s stature is subject to the same prejudices and biases as everyone else. We, as moviegoers, expect more from Allen. His longtime fans are faced with a dilemma: continue patronizing Allen’s films in the rapidly diminishing hope that he still has one last masterpiece in him or admit Allen will never make anything as sublime as Annie Hall or Manhattan or as perceptive as Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors and revisit those films instead.