Sony Pictures Classics
At Showcase and the State
2 out of 5 stars
It’s been suggested that one of the defining elements of auteur filmmaking is the recurrence of theme and style throughout a director’s entire body of work. The director Jean Renoir went so far as to say – and I’m paraphrasing here – that a true auteur makes the same movie again and again and again. If you’re remotely familiar with the extensive oeuvre of Woody Allen, then you’ll immediately recognize that, for better or worse, he has indeed made a version of the same movie over and over. This is transparently and disappointingly so in the case of his latest, “Whatever Works.”
The film centers on Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David, TV’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), a caustic, abhorrent, misanthropic genius who, against all odds, falls in love with a twenty-year-old southern belle, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, “Across the Universe”). They shack up in his cramped Lower East Side apartment, watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, embodying a picture-perfect couple in an unidentifiable world.
The fact that Allen’s view of New York is informed by his many days as a kid spent watching Hollywood movies — rather than his own experiences growing up in Rockaway — is beside the point. But the charming romanticism that defined New York in “Manhattan,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” is absent from “Whatever Works.”
And so are the laughs. The jokes are all there, but they’re well-worn and poorly delivered by David. The curmudgeon that David has fine-tuned on his HBO sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is on shoddy display with the unlikable Yellnikoff. Annoyed seems to be David’s one and only emotion and, thus, the light and cute witticisms he’s normally responsible for come fumbling out, missing nearly every time.
Supporting roles are well acted, though — namely in the case of the fantastic Patricia Clarkson (“Elegy”). Last seen in Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” she plays St. Ann Celestine’s mother, a woman once bound by southern gender roles and now emotionally and sexually liberated in New York.
The music is also outstanding. An archetypal Allen soundtrack, it includes a variety of jazz and a version of “Hello, I Must Be Going” sung by Groucho Marx from “Animal Crackers.”
Allen’s treatment of life (random and full of pain), love (more about luck than we care to admit), death (bound to happen) and God (we are alone in the universe) in “Whatever Works” is beyond familiar as far as his movies go.
In “Stardust Memories,” Allen honored Federico Fellini (“8 1/2”) while asking unanswerable questions, resulting in a beautiful, compelling film. In “Whatever Works,” he recycles the fourth-wall-breaking direct address from “Annie Hall.” “Whatever Works” is a broken record playing the least interesting song on the album.
It’s sad to see a movie like “Whatever Works” pit Allen’s new, dull comedies against movies of a different ilk (particularly the early, actually funny ones). Sure, his movies skate by today and some will be amused, but “Whatever Works” is a far cry from the brilliant genius Allen once was. Alright, he’s still a genius, but this movie is not very good.