Larry David, the absurdly nitpicky Jewish curmudgeon who can be seen on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-creator of Seinfeld, has an attitude that could easily be mistaken for Woody Allen’s. Though not the same man, and though they may always see alike, the way in which an audience perceives their worldviews certainly puts them in the same boat if not the same body. Getting to see the results of the two men collaborating is an absolute comic feast for those who like their particular brand of humor and a famine for those who don’t. Of course, that last group of people are missing out on the absurdly funny Whatever Works.
Woody Allen, as he has done every year for years on end, is the writer and director of Whatever Works. Rather than taking a part in the film himself though, the Allen-esque character, Boris Yellnikoff is played by Larry David. Playing Boris’ far younger love interest, Melodie St. Ann Celestine, is Evan Rachel Wood. The two find themselves thrown together when Melodie, a runaway, cons the depressed divorcee, Boris, into letting her stay the night (which becomes two nights, then a week, then a few weeks…).
David’s Boris is a man at the end of his rope, though he had a successful career as a professor studying quantum mechanics (he was nearly nominated for a Nobel Prize), as of late Boris’ life has been less than satisfactory. The movie picks up with Boris having decided relatively recently that he not only wanted a divorce, but having made an unsuccessful suicide attempt (due to his marriage) as well. Melodie finds him as is living in a large, though dilapidated, New York apartment and teaching chess to children.
The film both opens and closes with Boris addressing the viewer, and with those he’s with thinking him somewhat insane – though, as an off-kilter person to begin with, they accept this oddity even if they don’t understand it. The majority of the film plays out directly from Boris’ opening monologue – we watch things unfold, but it is Boris telling the audience the story, and he is not the sort of narrator to gloss of his shortcomings.
As with so many of Allen’s films, the character at the center, the Allen stand-in, has a way of highlighting all of their own defects and faults and yet being no less likable. Boris calls his students unintelligent in numerous different ways, casts aspersions on their families, and generally has little nice to say to anyone whatsoever. David, who has perfected a similar character himself through the years is able to deliver these crushing lines naturally and with great ease. Watching the film one can’t quite understand why he doesn’t get physically harmed by others more than a few times, but is still entranced by the whole thing.
Unfortunately for Whatever Works, the plot does fall off in the second half, with Melodie’s parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.), coming to town and both altering their lives greatly in the big bad city. Though their stories are funny, there being included to the extent they are changes the dynamic of the film greatly, and their characters are less compelling than Boris.
The Blu-ray release of Whatever Works contains a dearth of special features. There is a preview of an upcoming film and a trailer for this one. It is something of a disappointment not because it is unexpected but because it would be wonderful to hear Allen talk more about the movie.
As for the technical aspects of the release, the video contains a significant amount of grain, but has good colors and sharp details. The audio track is an English 51. DTS-HD Master Audio track and sounds quite good. As a dialogue heavy film the surrounds rarely have to do much work. There is also a tendency for any effect sound (most notably anything that crashes or bangs) to sound a little louder and perhaps slightly jarring for its loudness.
The essential message of Whatever Works is that people have to find just that. They have to go through their lives trying to find joy and happiness wherever and however they can. They force themselves into a niche because they feel they ought to be there – if it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t lead to happiness, they should try something else. Anyone attempting to find happiness, even if it is for a mere 92 minutes, would do well to start with this film.