Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is a curmudgeon and a pessimist, once a lauded college professor who now teaches children the game of chess, berating them every step of the way. The parents don't like his attitude, but it's Boris' way or the highway. At the start of "Whatever Works," he breaks the fourth wall, stares into the camera, and warns the audience looking back at him that "this will not be the feel-good movie of the year." Funny, then, that this is writer-director Woody Allen's most unabashedly sunny movie in years. 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona
" held a certain lightness to it, and 2006's "Scoop
" surely did, too, but both of them also delved into more sobering territory. Boris may be a little obsessive-compulsive (he sings "Happy Birthday" every time he washes his hands), a little suicidal (he's failed at least once), and a little bit of a hypochondriac (he is prone to making impromptu visits to the hospital and mourning his inevitable death), but the film's tone is as sweet and airy as can be. For the extent of its 92 minutes, it is pretty clear nothing too disastrous is going to happen to him.
The same could be said about the forever spunky, admittedly flighty Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a teenage runaway from Mississippi who has traveled north to make it in the Big Apple. When she approaches Boris outside his apartment and asks him for food, he invites her inside only after tossing out any number of insults her way. Melodie sees right through his negative demeanor and views him as a "genius" filled with wisdom. Pretty soon she is living with Boris full-time while she picks up a job as a dog walker, and eventually the two are married. Unlikely though they may be as a couple (and that's not to mention the forty-year age gap), Melodie soaks up Boris' pearls of cynicism while overlooking his many quirks, and Boris loves her for it.
Complications arise, however, with the appearance of Melodie's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), a longtime devout Christian just waiting to spread her wings in a city of culture and diversity. She thinks very little of her daughter's husbandafter glimpsing Boris for the first time and passing out, she exasperatedly says, "Give me the drink with the highest volume of alcohol you have"and conspires to set Melodie up with a more age-appropriate suitor, local actor Randy (Henry Cavill). Boris has always claimed that nothing lasts forever, but he can't help but wonder if true happiness will ever be in the cards for himself.
"Whatever Works" is minor Woody Allen, to be sure, and it is not too surprising that the veteran filmmaker reportedly wrote the script back in the 1970s. The film seems inspired quite a lot by "Annie Hall," though told from a lesser note, and also has tinges of "Mighty Aphrodite" to it. Melodie St. Ann Celestine is not a hooker, but Mira Sorvino's lovably ditzy Linda Ash could have very well been inspired by her. Continuing in the famed Allen tradition of casting great female performers for his movies, Evan Rachel Wood (2008's "The Wrestler
") is transcendent as Melodie, so bubbly, fresh-faced, and comedically tart that it is hard to believe this is the same actress who has made a career out of playing troubled, sullen teenagers. Melodie is the diametric opposite of those parts, and Wood breaks out of her shell in a big way. Hopefully this is the start of a new phase in her career; she now has most definitely proven that she is capable of more than gritty dramas.
The technical star of the picture is Larry David, who has turned Boris Yellnikoff into a slightly harsher version of his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" persona. Underneath Boris' misanthropy is a big softie, one that David naturally exudes. His relationship with Melodie, which could have been creepy in the wrong hands, is treated with just the right sincerity and restraint to make it a charming courtship. Their many one-on-one scenes together sparkle far brighter than the plot, which lacks high stakes and a central driving force to fully satisfy. As the impressionable Marietta, who experiences a spiritual awakening in New York City by dropping the religious business and becoming the woman that has always been inside her, Patricia Clarkson (2009's "Phoebe in Wonderland
") is a vision with a sharp sense of humor. And Ed Begley Jr. (2008's "Pineapple Express
"), as Melodie's father, John, shows up in the third act and makes a welcome imprint. John, like Marietta, has been living a lie, and finds in Manhattan what he has always wanted. No wonder these two close-vested Bible Belters have been miserable for so long.
As is typical Woody Allen, "Whatever Works" is full of acerbic barbs and one-liners, and in Larry David's Boris is the auteur's archetypal nebbish, self-deprecating hero. With that said, the film lacks originality and is too claustrophobic for its own good, lacking the visual sweep of a setting (New York) that wants, but doesn't quite succeed, at being a character unto itself. The title's adviceto embrace whatever works in order to be contentdoes ring true, though, and so does an ending that, despite Boris' earlier warning, qualifies as feel-good. "Whatever Takes" will not go down as one of Woody Allen's landmark efforts, but it more than suffices as we eagerly await what he has up his sleeve for next year.