Whatever Works, 2009. Directed and written by Woody Allen. Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Leo Brockman, Henry Cavill, Adam Brooks, Lyle Kanouse, and Michael McKean.

Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can provide, every temporary measure of grace–whatever works. –Boris Yellnikoff

That’s a beautiful philosophy. That quote closes out Woody Allen’s new movie Whatever Works, and it sums up not only the character of Boris (Larry David), but the film as well. Sometimes, when the summer movie experience is an unhealthy amalgam of battling robots, machine-gun wielding pretty-boys, or drunken frat guys, it’s nice to sit in a darkened theater and watch people talk–about love, life, philosophy, art, quantum mechanics, you name it. In places like beat-up little cafes, out-of-the-way Chinese restaurants, and knish bakeries. Like many Allen movies, Whatever Works is about people trying to get to the bottom of life’s mysteries, and the jokes they tell and the art they create to endure. And while Whatever Works is far from Allen’s best, and far from a great movie, it’s as pleasant a distraction as any. Whatever works, right?

The facts: Boris Yellnikoff is a grouch. A physicist who was “almost nominated for a Nobel Prize”, he spends his days teaching the city’s children chess, or rather, shouting at them when they fail, and drinking coffee and eating Chinese food with his pals, all of whom enjoy his irritable company. He’s left his wife and his pristine apartment in Manhattan, but not until after a failed suicide attempt whereby he defenestrated himself and came to land on a soft awning.

Later, Boris runs into the young Melodie, a Southern girl who ran from home to live in New York City. She’s homeless and destitute and hungry. Would Boris give her something to eat? He does, taking her into his life. So the old grouch with the strange habits (he must sing “Happy Birthday to You” when he washes his hands–an annoying habit that doesn’t make any sense), and the wide-eyed innocent Southern girl come together. Laughs must ensue.

And they do. Melodie’s mom Marietta (the great Patricia Clarkson, who will earn an Oscar nomination for this role) hunts the young girl down. Marietta is a prim and proper Southern lady who prays and drinks hard liquor. She settles in, trying to pry her daughter from the weird (and old) Boris. Marietta, like Melodie, is waiting to blossom, and blossom she does: Marietta possesses an eye for photography, opens a gallery, shacks up with not one but two men, and lives the Bohemian dream. So it goes.

Melodie meets a handsome stranger (Henry Cavill, an utterly dull fellow who makes even Larry David seem appealing), Dad comes to New York and finds his gay inner self, and everyone’s happy. No one has followed a straight-line to this happiness, living the ‘whatever works’ philosophy of Boris.

Whatever Works works, in part, because it is good natured, David is funny (at the start), and Clarkson and her entourage are hilarious and charming. But the movie slows down considerably when Melodie finds her true love, in part because Allen has ceased to cast interesting young men in his films. How much more intriguing would it have been for Melodie to find a young guy who looked decent but had a personality like Boris’s?

I came into this movie a bit distracted. First, I’ve enjoyed Larry David in the past, but he’s on a short rope with me. Curb Your Enthusiasm was wonderful and hilarious… for two seasons. At season three, David’s insufferable asshole became nothing more than an insufferable asshole in stories that were predictable and unfunny.

Plus, David is no actor, and that shines through in Whatever Works. He can’t even suppress a smile on his face when necessary. To make matters worse, hanging heavy over my impression of Whatever Works is the fact that this is a thirty-year-old screenplay that was originally envisioned for Zero Mostel. So all the time as I was watching the movie I was thinking of Mostel in that part, and my own imagination cast Shelley Duvall in the ditz role, one that she perfected and made complex in everything from Nashville to Time Bandits (and then some.) Evan Rachel Wood is not very convincing here, doesn’t possess much in the way of comic timing.

The comparisons with Mostel and Duval are important, I think, because Whatever Works biggest drawbacks are its honesty. We reach the conclusion with David speaking to the camera (he does that) and offering us the above wisdom–but it doesn’t feel the least bit genuine, in part because Larry David is a comedian and not an actor. When Melodie and Boris have a tense, heartbreaking moment toward the end, it has no weight at all… by now we’ve come to see Boris as a man of shtick, and not of emotion. Mostel would have both, and Duval would make Melodie a character of enormous emotional range.

The 1970s Whatever Works would have been controversial (with the gay Dad), and we’d have laughed hard and felt every blow, culminating in the wisdom above, and it would have been so very moving. What we get instead are a comedian and a Southern-belle impersonator, and that just isn’t very compelling, interesting, or moving. But some of the jokes are funny and the atmosphere is spot-on, as usual. The opening hour of Whatever Works is a very funny, not necessarily deep, step into Woody’s Manhattan on a summer day. Personally, I’ll take knishes and coffee over Transformers any day. Whatever works, right?

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