Just when you think he’s returning to the invigorated comedies of before with ‘Vicky Cristina’, Woody Allen comes up with ‘Whatever Works, a piece most notable for how little it doesn’t. Leaden and undeveloped, it’s impossible to fathom what could have driven him to walking out such a tired diatribe against humanity.
Taking Allen’s usual leading role here is Larry David as Boris Yelkinoff, a genius physicist who begrudgingly takes in the homeless and hapless Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood). Teaching her his bleak and self-aggrandizing view of the world, she finally woos him by parroting his dystopian sensibility leading to an even less likely marriage. Soon her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and wayward father John (Ed Begley Jr.) arrive looking to save her but inadvertadly release long seated passions they had so far ignored.
The irony is that the role played by David is one which Allen himself brought vividly to light in Deconstructing Harry, a man so irredeemable, he was impossible to ignore and ultimately not to sympathise with. Whereas Harry had depth and a well hidden likeability, Boris is nothing short of a cunt, bringing curmudgeon to the Nth degree. He never develops beyond the masochistic man that we first meet, so vain and pompous that it’s impossible to become involved with him as a person.
Acting could save the beleaguered plot and dialogue somewhat but David’s shouting delivery is grating in the extreme, matched only by Wood’s supreme lack of comic timing and vacant expressions. Neither one of them has any chemistry with the other or even personal charisma to save themselves let alone each other. Begley Jr. is no better, appearing only to round out the nonsensical mentality of injecting a city mentality into the supposed ‘Deliverance’ style family they’re meant to embody. The one shining star is Patricia Clarkson as Melodie’s mother, who has such an irrepressible vibrance that she invariably injects life and comedy into otherwise humourless scenes, overcoming the narrow remit given to her by both the writing and direction.
Despite all of Clarkson’s efforts however, it does nothing to mask how conceited this film is in its entirety, perhaps in the 70s when it was written the context would have been somewhat interesting or fresh but even that is doubtful as the very premise is too trite. No amount of newly inserted political and social references can save this film, being so bloated in its bravado that even with a long time Allen apologist like myself, it can muster nothing more than distain.