Whatever Works (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

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film_whatever-works_bw.jpgThe lack of effort is evident in everything from the feeble attempts to update the script to some notably out-of-focus shots inexplicably left in the final cut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Now that even funding from tourist boards seems to have dried up, it's really time for Woody Allen to retire. His latest film, Whatever Works, is but a pale shadow of his canonical New York films, most notably Annie Hall and Manhattan, and is remarkable primarily for the laziness which permeates the production. The lack of effort is evident in everything from the feeble attempts to update the script (originally written in the 1970s) to some notably out-of-focus shots inexplicably left in the final cut.

The story is a rehash of the Allen formula: A cranky Jewish guy (Boris Yellnikoff, played with an emphasis on the "yell" by Larry David) well past his prime somehow manages to live well without working, maintains a circle of loyal friends despite his self-centered unpleasantness, and has a beautiful and innocent girl (Melodie St. Anne Celestine, played by Evan Rachel Wood) perhaps one-third his age fall in love with him. Allen ups the ante this time around by having Melodie leave Boris, only to have an attractive older woman (Helena, played by Jessica Hecht) fall in love with him after he seriously injures her in his second suicide attempt. Seriously, you have to buy that, even when confined to a hospital bed with casts on her arms and legs, she finds his abusive manner charming.

If wish-fulfillment movies don't yet constitute an official category in the lexicon of film criticism, they should: Whatever Works is Forgetting Sarah Marshall for geezers. I don't watch much pornography, but I'm told that the heterosexual variety usually features ordinary-looking guys and stunningly beautiful women, the idea being the purchasers of said pornography are generally not the handsomest of men and want to imagine themselves getting the beautiful girls like that ordinary guy they see on the screen.

In Allen's movies you have several other layers of desire as well, most notably that of intellect and sophistication. Boris is a legend in his own mind. He claims he lost the Nobel Prize for Physics due to "politics," although one of his friends fills us in on a more likely story: Boris was a professor of physics before his mental breakdown. Of course his son went to Yale (established in a totally gratuitous reference); no City College for his little boy. And Boris rather improbably has access to all the necessary accoutrements of a sophisticated New York lifestyle, from a huge apartment in a hip neighborhood (which would probably run about seven figures in the real world) to friends who run art galleries and chamber music evenings at home.

The role of Boris was written for Zero Mostel, who just might have been able to pull it off. But with David instead of vulnerable humanity you get a lot of agitated monologues (some addressed directly to the camera; breaking the fourth wall may have been considered sophisticated in the 1970s but its certainly old hat today) loaded with more abuse than insight, most of which you've heard before. What's lacking is any sense of Boris as a person rather than a puppet being jerked around by a lazy screenwriter, in this case also Woody Allen.

The other characters fare worse, although it's not entirely their fault. Wood does the best she can in the role of a young woman so dim she really believes Boris played for the Yankees. I'd suspect the role of her mother, played with verve by Patricia Clarkson, was written by a drag queen except that it's too exaggerated. The role of her father (Ed Begley, Jr.) is no more than a punch line to a tired joke: Did you hear the one about the fundamentalist who discovered his Christian faith was just a means of subliming his homosexuality? In case you didn't get it, the characters repeat "sublimation" three times.

It's ironic that Boris likes to correct Melanie for using clichés in her speech, because he's nothing but a sweating, complaining cliché himself. And since the script is written to favor his point of view while reducing the other characters to even feebler clichés, the result is a movie which is not funny enough to succeed as a comedy and not nearly human enough to work as a drama. Woody Allen completists and diehard fans of Larry David may want to see it, but for everyone else I'd recommend a nice evening at home with the DVDs of a few classic Woody Allen films. | Sarah Boslaugh

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