After five years of working throughout Europe and the UK, Woody Allen returned to his native New York for production on his 39th feature Whatever Works. The film was originally penned some thirty years before and was meant as a vehicle for the once blacklisted Zero Mostel – whom Allen had worked with on Martin Ritt’s The Front – but the project was shelved after the actor’s untimely death. Revisiting the script in 2008, Allen looked to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David to fill the lead role of the disgruntled Boris Yelnikoff.
The narrative follows the divorced Boris through his chance encounter with southern runaway Melody (Evan Rachel Wood). Boris, a patronising, narcissistic, (self-proclaimed) physics genius who was once shunned for a Noble Prize, is completely antagonistic to the sweet, but not very bright, Melody. Yet as the two are thrown together a relationship soon develops between the two.
The combination of Allen and David working together seems like an all-star pairing. Whatever Works went into production following a string of critically acclaimed films and the highly profitable Vicky Cristina Barcelona; while Larry David has created arguably two of the most successful television shows of the last twenty years. The fact that both men share a predilection of neurotic characters, New York relationships and a distinct Jewish humour only cemented the union even further. It is disappointing then that something about Whatever Works seems out of sync.
Much of Whatever Works seems to hail back to Allen’s past work. The structure of the film mimics Melinda and Melinda and Broadway Danny Rose as a group of Boris’ peers retell the story of Boris and Melody; while the relationship between the couple recalls that of Allen and Mariel Hemmingway in Manhattan, but lacks the conceivability of that pairing. Boris himself shares the same narcissism and obsession with death as a colder adaptation of Alvy Singer from Annie Hall.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to digest in the film is David himself. While he doesn’t miss a beat in any of the comedic scenes and manages to transcend Allen’s dialogue into his own, it is his small screen persona that seems to get in the way of Boris’ darker side. The original Boris, Zero Mostel, was a larger-than-life character known for his ability to balance intensity with condescension; one could easily see him calling a ten-year-old chess student, as we see at one point in the movie, “an empty-headed zombie.” David on the other hand, seems less absurd as he does outright mean. David is known for his array of anxieties and uncontrollable rants on the small screen, but always with the punctuation of a joke, but as Boris, his inherent displeasure with mankind, whom he labels as “idiots, morons, inchworms and cretins”, lacks any of the pathos of his television persona and instead comes off as unkind and malicious.
However, there are some bright spots. The film jumps into high gear with the introduction of Patricia Clarkson as the irate mother of Melody, who has arrives at Boris’ doorstep to reclaim her daughter. The devout Baptist is a conservative southern bell whose personality and beliefs are turned upside-down when faced with the charms and alternative lifestyles of New York. Similarly, Melody’s adulterous father, played by Ed Begley Jr. all but steals the show as he laments his loveless marriage and conflicting feelings on the football field.
The production of the film is nothing short of first rate, as long time Allen collaborator and production designer Santo Laquasto and revered cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac and Birth) manage to capture New York in a stunning light and the humour of the film is as sharp as ever.
As a whole Whatever Works is far from Allen’s finest film, but that is a bar set inconceivably high. While the main thread of the story is re-tread and forgettable, the supporting cast elevate the narrative and place the film among Allen’s funniest in recent years.