Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Whatever Works ***
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson
Ed Begley Jr., Henry Cavill, Christopher Evan Welch, Olek Krupa
Some find Woody Allen's kind of filmmaking to be exasperating and annoying; stuck in the "neurotic, snobbishly humble Jew" part for times immemorial, he's what you can call an acquired taste.
Same goes for Larry David, who with his arrogantly neurotic comedy has become one of the most polarizing figures in entertainment history.
What happens then when you put these two together? Even more, what happens when the egregious David takes on the "Woody Allen role" in a movie?
You would have expected a clashing of egos (and it feels like that for the first awkward half hour), but before soon the two have managed to make something imperfectly perfect out of Boris Yellnikoff: the suicidal physicist at the center of "Whatever Works".
While Allen's male leads usually fear the world, Boris plain hates it. He goes on calling children "inchworms" and delivers complicated insults that boggle instead of offending.
The man even hates sex.
He manages to live because he seems to enjoy finding more reasons why he shouldn't be alive and his theory is that instead of looking for meaning you should just go with whatever works.
One night going home he encounters the waifish Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Woods), a Southern girl who just arrived to New Yok City, who asks him for something to eat and a place to stay the night.
She ends up staying a month and marrying Boris.
Their marriage however isn't born out of romantic movie love, Boris himself says he wants to attempt a "Pygmalion", while Melodie seems pleased with the notion that she's married to a genius.
She begins to talk, act and think different, "you have ideas of your own?" he asks in disbelief.
"Just a couple" she answers with the Southern modesty she was raised on.
Things start getting complicated when her parents arrive looking for her. Marietta (Clarkson), her mother, is a church going conservative who wanted her daughter to marry someone like George Bush.
Her father John (Begley Jr.) is the kind of man for whom a rifle is as sacred as his Bible. The two of them will be transfixed by New York City in unexpected ways and it's through them that the movie achieves a most positive, almost hopeful, note.
Allen doesn't take advantage of them to exalt the transforming power of his beloved city, instead he turns them into lovely fablesque creations that need to be so corny because "sometimes a cliché is finally the best way to make one's point."
This is by no means an attempt at realism, but a film made by someone who just doesn't have the heart to be too cruel.
You will find vintage Allen; some of the dialogues are hilariously cerebral beyond words and the performances are magnificent.
Even David who comes off as someone you're dying to hate at the beginning, grows a sort of Allen heart through which he exposes his vulnerabilities.
He often addresses the audience, in a move that not always works like it should, trying to explain his tragic views on life and at one point rightfully asks us "why do you wanna hear all this?".
Ironically, it's with this self examination that the movie steers us towards Melodie, Marietta and John, who become the most fascinating characters.
Clarkson is a scene stealer, bringing her earthy sexiness and effortless sophistication to someone that might've been played like a parody and Begley does wonders as Allen tries to explore with him the one issue he's never been able to tackle accurately in his movies.
Then there's Wood who selfconsciously starts playing Melodie like a typical bimbo, only to turn her into a fascinating young woman at odds with what she believes, what she believed and what she believes she believes.
With her, Allen makes the crazy marriage seem like the most normal thing in the world, "I don't like normal, healthy men, I like you" she says (which might remind you of Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's") and she means it.
And once she understands that each of us must make the best out of what we get,she channels Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan" and delivers a lovely statement that makes us see that for all the theories we make about love; whether they be physical, chemical, spiritual or mental, the truth is it's still the greatest mystery in the universe.
Boris might not get it, Allen might not get it, Melodie herself might not know what she's talking about, but with her the movie turns its bitter outlook upside down and delivers the refreshingly hopeful plunges into the dark Allen has always been so good at.
Because hey, it just ain't Allen if it doesn't break your heart.