Saturday, June 20, 2009

In Theaters: "Whatever Works"

You’re not supposed to let outside information influence your impressions of a new film, but let’s be honest: no movie exists in a vacuum, and our experiences are informed by not only our preconceived notions but the little tidbits we might have picked up on our way into theater. For example, my feelings on the latest Woody Allen film, Whatever Works (the title sounds oddly like a response to the title of his 2003 picture Anything Else), are not only swayed by my general regard for the filmmaker himself, but by a crucial bit of behind-the-scenes information.

It seems that Allen first wrote the screenplay in the mid-1970s, intending it as a vehicle for Zero Mostel. When Mostel died, Allen tossed it in a drawer. But when his one-movie-a-year output was jeopardized by a threatened actor’s strike and he needed to get a script ready to go sooner than usual, he dusted off the old script, gave it a quick rewrite, and cast Larry David in the Mostel role. Now again, I realize that this little bit of cinematic archaeology (similar to his 1993 re-working of material originally intended for Annie Hall as Manhattan Murder Mystery) shouldn’t weigh one’s judgment of the resulting movie, one way or the other. But that bit of framing data puts the film into perspective; this is old-school Woody, pre-Annie Hall even. This is the period that is commonly referred to (even mockingly by Allen himself, in Stardust Memories) as his “earlier, funnier movies.” Does it hold up, comparatively, to his other films of that era (Sleeper, Love and Death, Bananas)? Not especially; it’s too hit-and-miss for that. But is it funny? Certainly.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a former professor specializing in quantum mechanics, once a Columbia professor and also-ran for the Nobel Prize, whose dark world view and hopelessness has driven him to all but drop out of civilized society; he’s divorced his upscale wife and quit his job, taking a loft and teaching chess to snotty rich kids. One night, Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty young Southern runaway, shows up on his doorstep, begging for food and a place to crash. Though he dismisses her (sharply) as an “imbecile” and “simpleton,” a mutual affection eventually develops between the dopey, sunny girl and the grouchy misanthrope and, improbably, they’re married.

The first half of the film, which deals with the basic goals of introducing David’s character, reveling in his ill temper, and bouncing him off of Wood’s charming dimwit, is the better one. Allen’s script includes some acting beats that are a little out of David’s admittedly limited range, and a couple of his line readings are rather on the stiff side. But for the most part, he’s uproariously funny, and his timing is terrific (I’m not sure who else I could imagine getting away with the line, “That’s an awfully aggressive ensemble. You looking to wind up in an abortion clinic?”).

Many have surmised that David is just playing the Allen surrogate here (as John Cusack did in Bullets over Broadway or Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity), but I disagree; though a typically Allen hypochondriac (“I didn’t say I don’t have an ulcer, I said they can’t find an ulcer”), Boris is free of the charming insecurities, romantic inclinations, and general likability of the “Woody character”, and Allen seldom played characters this disagreeable (with the possible exception of Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry, a role he reportedly did not write for himself). Opposite him, Evan Rachel Wood is playing a broad type, sure, but she’s as likable as all get out; her folksy charm and dizzy line readings give a George-and-Gracie vibe to some of their two-scenes, which frequently play like blackout sketches (of an old boyfriend, she proclaims, “He caught the biggest catfish in Plaqamon County,” to which David replies, “I wondered who caught that catfish”).

The second half of the picture, with reunions and subplots concerning Melodie’s parents (played none-too-subtly by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) doesn’t move quite as well; it feels a bit too constructed, and the laughs don’t come as quick and punchy (and the film becomes less nimble—a couple of long scenes are clunkily staged, with characters lined up in a row as if the camera frame were a stage proscenium). Though it’s fun to watch the two Southern women ricochet off each other while David lobs one-liners, the turns of the plot feel a bit too pat. That said, Allen finds just the right feel for the closing scene, even if it trots out a joke about his proto-Annie Hall breaking of the fourth wall one time too many.

Perhaps the strangest note being sounded in Whatever Works’ mostly-negative reviews thus far has been the near-universal grousing that David’s character is “too unlikable” or “unsympathetic.” They’re missing the point entirely. It’s no accident that Allen chose, as the familiar old record for the opening credits, Groucho Marx singing “Hello, I Must Be Going”; Boris Yellnikoff is the kind of sharp-witted, bitter, muttering grouser that Groucho or W.C. Fields used to play. Both of those character comics were, Allen has noted often, huge early influences on him; I think, when he wrote this script those many years ago, he saw Mostel as the same kind of bigger-than-life comic personality, and wrote the role accordingly. W.C. Fields’ character was that of a drunken gambler who hated dogs, loathed his wife, and kicked children. Groucho’s was a quick-witted con man who talked fast and insulted everyone in sight. Did anyone ever complain about how unsympathetic they were? No, because they were funny. So is Boris. So is Whatever Works, spotty though it may be.

"Whatever Works" is currently playing in limited release.

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