In many ways, Whatever Works is your prototypical Woody Allen comedy. It features (1) a schlubby and neurotic Jewish man who is unlucky with love and lucky with witticisms, (2) a love triangle, (3) direct address to the camera, (4a) references to classic Hollywood films, (4b) a Groucho Marx reference. So far so good. The problem is (5) an incredibly heavy-handed screenplay. The film sets up its protagonist’s nihilistic view of humanity in its opening moments in such a way that practically screams, “Wait and see how utterly transformed I’ll be by film’s end!”
Luckily, that protagonist is played by Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm co-creator Larry David, who can scream just about anything and make it funny. The addition of David to Allen’s stable proves to be the ingredient missing from such lacklustre comedies as Scoop (with Scarlett Johannson as the comedic lead), Melinda and Melinda (Will Ferrell) and Anything Goes (Jason Biggs), and he’s Whatever Works’ one saving grace.
Just as Manhattan foreshadowed Allen’s romantic affiliations with (much) younger women, Whatever Works acts as a reaction to any criticisms that he may have suffered since marrying his daughter-in-law. Boris Yellnikoff (David) is constantly telling us, “Whatever works,” meaning any means of attaining happiness is a good one, particularly when it comes to relationships. After divorcing his wife, with whom his love was purely theoretical, and attempting suicide by jumping from his window (he hits the awning, earning himself a limp), Boris finds a young, pretty Southern belle named Melodie (played by Evan Rachel Wood) in an alley outside his apartment. After some cajoling, he lets her stay with him. And they eventually marry, despite the fact that their attraction seems entirely based on him insulting her and her not getting it. Whatever works, I suppose.
But Allen is seldom content to let his characters find happiness on their first try. The 73-year-old auteur traffics in love triangles, and this film is no different. The problem for the film, however, is that when Wood’s character goes off with a younger man, we end up losing sight of our beloved curmudgeon. With a glut of second-act character additions, including ones played by Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., and Henry Cavill—thankfully Allen let ScarJo sit this one out, David becomes a glorified background performer, delivering many of his lines from the periphery of the frame, and someone to be laughed at rather than with.
Luckily, Whatever Works also includes something else that Allen’s last few comedies have sorely lacked: wit. David is the perfect conduit for Allen’s ubiquitous neuroses, balancing his nihilism with a hint of Classic Hollywood romanticism. The scales sometimes tip too far to the latter, as in Boris’ closing monologue, but there are enough zingers throughout that the goodwill gets spread over the rough patches where the jokes fall flat. When Melodie asks Boris where he can take her fundamentalist Christian mother for fun, he replies: “How about the Holocaust museum?” in his characteristic deadpan. Whatever Works won’t work for everybody, but if you like Allen and David, it provides two great tastes that taste great together—if somewhat diluted.
Whatever Works is now playing at the AMC Forum 22.