Monday, June 22, 2009

"Whatever Works" Review

For many it was a dream too good to come true: New York's two most neurotic Jews (Director Woody Allen and "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David) collaborating on a comedy, but unless you immediately lower your expectations, the dream team will likely disappoint. "Whatever Works" is a languidly paced romcom focusing on the relationship that evolves between self-described genius Boris Yellnikoff (David), and the young run-away he encounters outside his apartment, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood).

Her character is a bumpkin if ever there was one, and spouts as many cliches as she personifies (to Boris' repeated chagrin). Their first meeting feels bizarrely fairy tale-esque, which is to say acceptably cliche, with the downtrodden caricature of hopelessness imploring a passerby for food or shelter, who in turn invariably offers them a kind hand.

Okay, maybe it doesn't go quite that well here, but it's a stretch to imagine a character like Boris being hospitable to an "urchin" like Melodie. The curmudgeon begrudgingly allows the southern belle to room with him, scorning her obviously inferior intellect and flinging insults like "inchworm" at her every other sentence. As for her physical appearance, he deems her a five, maybe a six out of ten. But wouldn't you know it, after a few weeks of home-cooked crawfish and shared city tours, the six becomes a seven, the seven an eight, and the two find themselves an unlikely, but happy, husband and wife. The fairy tale neatly ties its ends, but the movie's only half-way over. Melodie's mother (Patricia Clarkson) enters the picture.

Its simple premise diluted, "Whatever Works" begins to unravel. Becoming more family comedy than romantic, Boris disappears for whole sequences, which feel all the more sluggish for his absence. Mrs. Celestine, understandably displeased with her daughter's choice in spouses, sets out to find her a new man, and becomes memorably ensnared (ahem) in the New York liberal art scene.

As in many of Allen's films, the vast majority of the characters are aggressively forward in speaking about their sexuality, and of course, fidelity is a major component of the story. Not one but two young men find Melodie attractive enough to ask her outright for a date; one, so struck by her beauty that he asks her mother on the way to the ladies' room to introduce them. Who does that, other than maybe Allen to women?

The conflicting ideas never really harmonize, and the film feels in turns claustrophobically intimate and frenetically unfocused. Coincidences abound in the script, and he can call them fate, but Allen has a way of making New York, and recently London, feel like the two smallest cities in the world. Negativity aside, "Whatever Works" may be Woody Allen's funniest comedy in years, and a more apt title for the film than perhaps he originally intended. You can't outright condemn the piece for all it does right: David's performance is strong, and it's not hard to imagine Allen himself floundering in the lead role, but it's impossible to ignore its thematic fluctuations, yawny stretches, and story problems.

Some of it plays. Some of it doesn't. Whatever. This dream team fairy tale is probably best left a rental.


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