Woody Allen’s 34th film as writer and director was heralded in many quarters, at the time of its 2009 pre-release, as a long overdue return to the auteur’s under-indulged comedic roots. Apparently an updated rewrite of a dusted down discarded screenplay from the early seventies, Whatever Works is unambiguously a comedy (‘a new comedy’, according to its billing – and a romantic one at that), back in the familiar and beloved New York haunts, following notable European excursions for Match Point, Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. These factors, at least as they appear on paper, were warmly welcomed by myself, as was the risky casting of Larry David in its starring role. As David’s character early observes in the picture, though, ‘life isn’t on paper’. And neither is film.
The rationale behind casting David essentially to do what Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity – appear as a stand in ‘Woody’ character – is clear enough; David’s humour in both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is indelibly marked with the Allen influence, and, allowing for the more high-brow frame of reference and overt preoccupation with ultimate questions which characterise the film-maker’s work, the affinities between their celebrated on-screen personae are not hard to spot. David, however, is no Kenneth Branagh, and the prospect of him doing proper acting and carrying a whole feature must surely have precipitated a certain amount of nervous twitching from Allen’s production company. Allen’s script, though, asks little of him in the thespian stakes, and as Boris Yelnikoff, the misanthropic self-proclaimed epic genius protagonist of the feature, David kvetches his way through the production, delivering monologues and asides to the camera, engagingly and amusingly enough. Indeed, most of the chuckles provided arise from the sparring between Yelnikoff and his unlikely young love interest from the south, Melodie St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood); the potential incongruity of seeing the familiar face of Curb Your Enthusiasm playing another character in another fictional world is, as it turns out, the least of the film’s problems.
The basic plot structure – grumpily aging, suicidal protagonist reluctantly lets empty-headed attractive young blonde runaway into his home; to his surprise and initial dismay, they fall in love and get married, before her frantic parents come looking for her, leading to farcicial shenanigans and ironic reversals – ticks some recognisable classic Allen boxes, and is all well and good up to a certain point. However, Allen’s tendency to voice his opinions through his protagonists, while certainly not being artistically invalid in itself, goes blaringly into overdrive in this film from the opening scene, to the detriment of its overall artistic balance. Yelnikoff beats the viewer over the head with clichéd atheistic and anti-American rants, and the minimal gestures of having other characters mock his worldview (and having him subject himself to the odd self-deprecating barb) do little to ameliorate this unhappy circumstance. I acknowledge that it is highly unlikely Allen ever thought himself to be making a piece of cinematic art comparable in stature to Hannah and Her Sisters with this diversion, but this is just one sense in which the achievement of dramatic perspective, so refined and expansive in that wonderful picture, is wholly lacking here. Another is in the portrayal of Celestine and her conservative Christian parents from the south. The performances of Wood, and Patricia Clarkson as Marietta Celestine, Melodie’s formidable mother, are lively and spirited, standing in bright contrast to too much that is lethargic and workmanlike from many of the supporting players. Sadly, the attitude that the film evinces towards the America outside the liberal New York bubble inhabited by its protagonist and his friends, goes far beyond the condescension that Allen has often been charged with, being pithily encapsulated by Yelnikoff’s reference to Marietta’s ‘most deeply held beliefs’ quickly going ‘right down the toilet’ after her arrival in New York, ‘where they belong’. The stark (but predictable) plot twists which befall the characters of Marietta and her estranged husband John (Ed Begley Jr.) – bad enough in terms of their artistic clunkiness, so sharply contrasting from the lightness of touch with which Allen could once carry off the absurd and the improbable – far from softening the contemptuous tone toward the America they supposedly represent, only serve to reinforce it. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Allen’s congenital Europhilia, once manifesting itself in a profound absorption of the influences of some of the twentieth-century’s greatest film-makers, to the undoubted enrichment of American cinema, persists only as a symptom of something altogether mean-spirited.
In sum, my advice to Allen, having watched this sporadically diverting piece of fluff a couple of times, would be the complete opposite of what he’s been hearing for most of his career: no more early funny ones. Please.