Woody Allen

Sony Pictures Classics

Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Cavill, Samantha Bee

WHATEVER WORKS: USA 2009, 35mm, color, English, PG-13, 92 min


SHOWTIMES THRU 7/23: 5:30p - ENDS THU 7/23

Woody Allen’s latest, shot in New York after years of absence, documents a failed physicist’s limping journey from misanthropy to the acceptance of the world’s innumerable flaws. With Larry David as a crank for whom the glass is always half-empty, Allen’s homecoming throws welcome twists onto the director’s longstanding reflections on the sexual and the satirical.

Writing a New York story and shooting at home has given Allen a sureness to his voice. The dialogue here has a familiar ring yet a crackling freshness. Caustic but oddly humane, WHATEVER WORKS is the director’s best film in more than a decade.

WHATEVER WORKS is the catch-all motto for Boris, who has lost faith in moral codes and moved down-market since failing at his marriage, his academic career teaching physics at Columbia, and his suicide attempt. (He leaps out a window and lands on a canopy, and ends up with nothing more than a limp, for which he blames his doctor).

Returning one night to his squalid walk-up after teaching chess to children whom he despises, Boris finds runaway Melody (Wood) from Mississippi, who begs him for food, and for a bed. Boris lectures her on the world’s injustices, and she ends up falling, Allen-style, for the foul-mouthed Henry Higgins. Soon they marry. Eventually, Melody’s mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) appears, and discovers art and sex in New York. Her father (Ed Begley, Jr.) also arrives, and sheds his inhibitions. Handsome actor Randy James (Henry Cavill) ensures that Boris and Melody’s love won’t last forever.

Evan Rachel Wood is near-perfect as the credulous Southern girl, too innocent to feel the barbs that Boris hurls at her, hence able to fall in love with him. Like Mariel Hemingway in MANHATTAN (who played Allen’s teenaged girlfriend), Wood makes her sweetness irresistibly credible. Close-ups of Wood by DP Harris Savides are delicately radiant, exceptional in a film that rarely allows cinema to get in the way of comedy.

True to form for Allen, the supporting cast broadens the comedy, turning an odd folie a deux into a farcical culture war when Melody’s parents arrive. As Marietta, who arrives as a dopey Southern matron (the ideal hick for Allen to skewer), Patricia Clarkson shakes off Christianity (another favorite target for Allen) once she’s had some wine. Soon she’s enough of a New Yorker to bed multiple lovers and have her own art exhibition, with (what else?) nude photo-collages.

WHATEVER WORKS transcends Allen formulas thanks to David, who is taller, balder and more foul-mouthed than the usual types Allen himself has played. Spitting out his lines, David finds a deeper nastiness here than the everyday bile of his character on the autobiographical CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Allen does wonders with a character who isn’t seeking to be loved. screendaily