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Whatever Works

Woody Allen

In Whatever Works, writer-director Woody Allen has, for the first time, found a substitute for himself. In the past, he has either created a role of Gilbert-and-Sullivan predictability for himself to play, or cut himself out. There is, for example, no Woody Allen character in such films (and beautiful, thoughtful films they are) as Interiors and Another Woman. Whatever Works marks the first time that Mr Allen has entrusted his trademark patter to another actor, and that actor, Larry David, turns out to be ideal, and possibly better than ideal. Larry David, every inch the curmudgeon that Mr Allen would like to be, and genuinely abrasive New York mensch whose motto is a heartfelt "So, sue me!", has something else that Mr Allen lacks, and that is a pretty face. You might not think so, but pay attention. Whenever his character, Boris Yellnikov, has something particularly sour to say, his face attains the untroubled calm of a choirboy's. It is not that this face is innocent. Even choirboys are not innocent. But choirboys are disinterested. They capture our idea of angels singing to God without the slightest anxiety about mankind. Fellow-feeling is unknown to them, and that is why we call them "innocent." At his most curmudgeonly, Mr David reveals a reassuring smile, kindly eyes, and a boyish brow. He's as handsome as anybody in Hollywood! And, there's no fellow-feeling.

It is also true that Mr David is a lot younger than Woody Allen. Almost a dozen years younger! As one of the oldest boomers, he brings a savvy swagger and désinvolture to the Woody Allen (WA) part that brushes away, like the toothbrush in one of those old toothpaste ads, the pesky bits of neurotic plaque that have built up in the WA parts over the years, as the stretch between Mr Allen's visible age and his still-youthful persona has approached the snapping point. The danger for Mr Allen is that, after a certain age, edgy antsiness is all too likely to come across as cranky nastiness. This was put to great comic effect in the underrated Hollywood Ending, where, in the scene set at the Bemelmans Bar, Val, the WA character of the moment, alternates between calm analysis of a film project and hydrophobic denunciation of his ex-wife's infidelity. There, the meanness is intentional, and very funny. But it was not funny in Anything Else, Mr Allen's next film. In Scoop, the last film in which Mr Allen appeared, the danger was avoided altogether by making Sid Waterman overtly paternal; he can scold Sondra (Scarlett Johannson) for her hare-brained schemes, but his lack of interest in her as a woman mutes Sid's animus, and keeps it nicely avuncular.

Until then, we never doubted that the WA characters really were interested in the young women opposite whom Mr Allen arranged to play. These little men were always ardent; and this is where Mr David perhaps falls short. His declarations of love have the sharp concision of a legal pleading: love me or sue me — take it or leave it. When he loses Melodie (the superb Evan Rachel Wood) in Whatever Works, we see his empty bravado of his insults, which recur to the demeaning epithets with which he introduced himself to her at the start, but we have to infer the pain. Far more sincerely than Woody Allen, Larry David believes that amorous love makes you ridiculous, so much so that he appears to have bought an ironclad insurance policy against looking ridiculous. When the sandbag falls, it turns out that he is the sandbag: resorting, for a second time, to his favored method of suicide, defenestration, he lands on an innocent passerby (Jessica Hecht), whom, amazingly, he doesn't kill but only puts in the hospital, and who survives to become the lady he was looking for all along. (She's a psychic.) The long and the short of Mr David's crisp self-possession is that the pathos that gave Annie Hall and Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose their heart-breaking (or -warming) endings is missing.

Lots of viewers won't miss it. Whatever Works is a sophisticated, grown-up version of the kind of comedy that Mr Allen made before Annie Hall, when he had to keep his passion for Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini to himself. It is very light-hearted. In fact, it is downright exuberant, once Patricia Clarkson arrives on the scene, and, in the most professional way imaginable, simply takes over. Ms Clarkson, playing Marietta, Melodie's mother, has made of this part a catalogue raisonné of her talents. She is the bubbly but buttoned housewife (Tune in Tomorrow; The Untouchables, even), the unhappy woman of a certain age (Pieces of April, Elegy), the femme fatale (High Art), and all the permutations thereof. The transition from suburban lady-who-lunches to bohemian lady-who-sleeps-between-two-men is just about instantaneous, but it makes perfect sense, because everything that Patricia Clarkson does is more convincing than the voice in a burning bush that Boris regards as his trademark. Marietta's dislike of Boris, nothing less than ineffable, is just as impersonal as Boris's contempt for everybody else. He's the wrong man for her daughter, that's all; and as soon as this little mistake is cleared up, she's perfectly happy to party at his place. Prior to that, she takes a nicely insulting line and makes it the centerpiece of the film: she describes describing Melodie's life with Boris as "playing nursemaid to a roach." Whether she is a member of the Junior League or the Art Students League, Marietta has a way of ignoring Boris, of somehow failing to register his presence, that is the perfect volley to his belittling serve.

As usual, Mr Allen has assembled a cast of actors who are not only interesting to watch but who grasp the Kabuki-like nature of supporting roles in these productions. In all decency, I ought to run through some of the brighter names, but I'm not going to. Whatever Works is a three-role comedy (with a lot of comic extras): boy, girl, and mother-in-law. That the boy is older than the mother-in-law enables him to fire back with some pretty big guns, but it's still no use: mothers-in-law always prevail, because they are, after all, mothers. The most interesting supporting role is played by the City of New York itself, from which Mr Allen's lens has been absent for a while. He has a whole new bunch of locations to show us, from the Chinatown that's tucked under the Manhattan Bridge to Madame Tussaud's — than which a more ghastly entertainment, on the evidence presented here, cannot be imagined. We visit the 79th Street Boat Basin up close, and we see the Statue of Liberty from the proper distance, in Battery Park (as close as I've ever been on land). What makes the city interesting, though, is its accommodation of the two older stars. Is Gotham a native's town, favoring Boris? Or are immigrants (American or foreign) the true New Yorkers? The competition between the two viewpoints is so close that I expect I'll change my mind every time I see Whatever Works, but, on first viewing, I must award the palm to the lady from Mississippi who is played by a great dame from New Orleans. (July 2009)

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