Whatever Works

From the opening strains of Groucho Marx crooning Hello, I Must Be Going, Woody Allen fans know exactly where they are. The jazz, any jazz, remains his signature playing over those titles and whatever follows is going to be, at the very least, interesting. Even his disappointing films of the last 20 years have remained a curiosity in his vast canon but has he ever delivered a film that plays as a greatest hits medley? Whatever Works, starring Seinfeld creator Larry David, is fun, occasionally lots of fun, yet it comes as no surprise to learn he penned it 30 years ago with himself in mind to play the bitter, old curmudgeon with a grudge against life itself.
One of the hardest jobs an actor can be asked to do is address the camera. He has to connect with us, make us like him or at least empathise so it’s a testament to David’s prowess that despite the vitriol he hurls at us and everyone else, his performance does engage. Boris Yellnikoff (get it?) is an angry Manhattanite, abusive to the children he teaches chess to, emotionally stunted, and his friends find him amusing but when nubile blonde-from-the-south Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), adrift in the city, shows up outside his building, his prejudices slowly change. Like so many of Allen’s characters from the past, Boris eventually surrenders and a marriage soon follows. Before long her mother (Patricia Clarkson) turns up, faints upon meeting her new son-in-law and proceeds to be seduced by the charms of the city that, rather neatly, brings me to…
As for that greatest hits medley I mentioned, true devotees of Allen may have recognised some of the references but for those that didn’t, the screenplay abounds with them. Let’s start with the ménage a trois Clarkson finds herself in. Was Vicky Cristina Barcelona only last year? Didn’t Gene Wilder explore carnal love with a sheep (slyly referenced here) in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex…But Were Afraid To Ask? Am I the only one who noticed how much David’s relationship with Wood mirrors Max Von Sydow’s relationship with Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters? And while we’re visiting with Hannah, didn’t Allen wake up in that film screaming “I’m dying!”? Didn’t those comedians in Broadway Danny Rose sit in a café trading stories much as David and his buddies do here? Didn’t the film-within-a-film cast of The Purple Rose Of Cairo observe us in the final moments as the cast do here?
These references shouldn’t be a surprise when we consider the age of the screenplay, which Allen’s been using like a grab-bag ever since, and assembled, it makes for a delicious, if light, affair. The director’s deep, inquisitive meditations on who and why we love are long gone now only to be replaced with fleeting stand-up-comic one-liners. David is a great performer, lucky for Allen, and so many of his cutting observations echo those vexations the jokers of Seinfeld thrived on and he delivers them as if holding a rifle, Wood, once again demonstrating range, is admirable while Clarkson turns her clichéd character into something typically beguiling. The title applies to everything here…everything.
Michael Dalton

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