For Woody Allen there is no place like home. After a protracted absence from his beloved Manhattan—the locale for his most famous films—Allen has set his latest, Whatever Works, in the Big Apple. Perhaps the change in location to Europe was as good as a rest for the filmmaker, or perhaps he is reinvigorated by shooting on the streets of New York again. Whatever the case, with Whatever Works, he has made the first true neurotic Woody Allen movie since 2002’s Hollywood Ending.
Larry David stars as Woody Allen, although his character’s name is Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant but misanthropic man who lives in a state of constant pessimistic despair. Boris is so foul tempered, so out-of-step with humanity (or nattering microbes as he calls them) he makes the caustic character David plays on Curb Your Enthusiasm look positively cordial by comparison. When a homeless waif named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) inserts herself into his life by moving into his walk-up apartment and treating him to homemade southern cooking, his world view softens, but only a touch.
Whatever Works feels like a throwback to the kind of observational films Allen made in the 1970s. His best work has always focused on the basics of life—love, morality, sex, religion and the randomness of the universe—and Whatever Works signals a welcome return of Allen’s trademarks after a series of entertaining, but fluffy films. Also at hand are Woody staples such as an old school jazz soundtrack (the film kicks off with Grouch Marx singing Hello, I Must be Going from the 1930 film Animal Crackers), the familiar Allen font in the credits and the even more familiar May – December romance storyline.
The acerbic heart of the film is Larry David, main character and fourth wall piercing narrator. It can’t be said that he brings a lot of charm to the movie, but that’s the point. It’s a rare actor who could pull off a line like “It’s true, I have been patient with your phenomenal ignorance,” and not completely alienate the audience but David has the disagreeable old coot routine down pat and knows that viewers will go along with him no matter how bumpy or uncomfortable the ride. My only complaint about the performance is that it seems so constrained. David is an improviser at heart and occasionally his long scripted to- camera monologues feel forced.
Balancing out the sour with the sweet is Evan Rachel Wood as the naïve Melody, a young former pageant queen from the Deep South. She hasn’t given many comic performances but here she is dimwitted perfection. Wood milks every laugh out of the script, particularly when she is regurgitating Boris’s high brow theories on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the like.
Whatever Works is only occasionally laugh out loud funny, but is a welcome return to his roots from Woody Allen. Call it How Woody Got His Groove Back if you like, but nobody else does jokes about ego and super ego with as much panache.