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Movie Review: Whatever Works

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For many years Woody Allen has been something of an unknown to me. To a large extent he continues to be an enigma. My experience with his movies has been limited, to say the least, more or less limited to those films over the past decade, and looking over Woody's filmography, there are some great movies I still need to see. Anyway, off I went to see Whatever Works on the heels of such recent Allen ventures as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra's Dream, and Match Point. This proved to be a decidedly different experience, but one that proved to be infinitely more rewarding than the past couple I have been subjected to.

Whatever Works turns out to be one of the funniest Allen films I have seen in recent years. How could it not be? It the first straight up comedy he has made since 2003's Anything Else. Most of his films since then have played more towards the dramatic or thriller side of the coin, with most coinciding with his departure from New York City for more European locales. Even with my limited Allen experience, it is nice to see him return stateside and turn out a zippy, banter-driven comedy.

It came as no surprise to learn that this screenplay was originally written in the 1970s and was being tailored to star Zero Mostel, but his death caused Allen to shelve the script. I am glad to see he was able to dust it off and put it to good use. Not only that, but Larry David seems to be the perfect fit for the role, which feels like the classic Woody-type role that he would have played 10 or 15 years ago.

The movie opens with Groucho Marx singing "Hello, I Must be Going" from Animal Crackers, which serves as the film's theme song and sums up much of what Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is about. We move from there to watching the activity that likely takes up the majority of Boris' time. What could that be? Why, holding conversations/lectures with his friends on the finer points of the life around them and how he pretty much hates all of it.

Boris then turns to the screen and begins to tell his story to a non-existent audience. It is a brilliant breaking of the fourth wall. From here we move onto the story proper where we get to learn a bit more about what makes Boris tick. In particular, we learn about his "whatever works" philosophy and how love is a funny thing and you never know when you may be called up to give some, take some, or share some. Just be ready for its fickle nature.

Boris reveals himself to being a quantum physicist who was once almost nominated for a Nobel Prize, a retired professor who is divorced from his perfect match because he could not stand it. He now lives in a low end walk-up and makes some extra money teaching chess to "inchworms" who he is more likely to smack with the chess board than he is to offer any sort of encouragement.

One day, he returns home to discover a poor girl at his door begging for food. He initially rebuffs her begging, but eventually relents and invites her in. The girl is Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) and she buys into what Boris is selling, hook, line, and sinker. The two end up becoming an item, much to the chagrin of everyone, including Boris. Things get even stranger when her mother (Patricia Clarkson) and father (Ed Begley Jr.) arrive, separately, considering their estranged status.

A number of characters float into view, all of whom give meaning to the "whatever works" philosophy. They are transformed by the city around them, their eyes are opened, their minds cleared of the barriers that have been put in place. They recognize the change inside of themselves and they act appropriately.

The film is actually rather interesting, offering up philosophical meanderings on life that impart some ideas and concepts that we are to used to hearing, some even running counter to what many have been taught over their lives. I am not saying this will change anyone's lives or belief systems, but there is a definite truth behind the words that could be worth pondering.

The performances are all quite good. Larry David has a very distinct style and his mannerisms and delivery are perfect for a Woody Allen character. He is funny, confident, and cannot believe anyone could dare believe he is anything other than right (I feel like that sometimes). Then there is Evan Rachel Wood, whom I did not even recognize until the closing credits, and she is pitch perfect as the young girl in Boris' life. She brings sunny optimism, naivete, and the desire to trust anyone and turns into a near art form. It is a fantastic performance, one of the best of her young career.

As for Allen, this film seems to fall well within the parameters of what made classic Woody so great. It may not be one of his best, but it is definitely a change of pace from his recent fare and a step from his past two films. His direction is minimal, as his focus is on the characters and dialogue (I suspect this is the school of thought that Kevin Smith subscribes to). What shines is his dialogue — there is plenty of it, it is smart, witty, and delivered in rapid-fire pace.

Bottom line. I am glad I made the trip to see this one. It gives some actual content that will stick with you and is genuinely funny. It is very Woody Allen and will therefore not be for everybody, but give it a shot, you may surprise yourself.


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