What’s Working for Woody?

Film

Live and Direct: Woody Allen making ‘Whatever Works’ work.
COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
Live and Direct: Woody Allen making ‘Whatever Works’ work.

By Gordon Haber

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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There is no talking about this Woody Allen movie without talking about Woody. But before I get into that, I’d rather assert how much I admire him — for his achievements, of course, and for how, at the relatively advanced age of 73, he is still making interesting movies. Like Philip Roth, his rough contemporary, Allen does not rest on his laurels. At a time of life when many New York Jews spend half the year in Florida, Allen is writing and directing, and investigating the questions that still bedevil him.

Not that “Whatever Works,” Allen’s latest effort, seems like it was particularly challenging to make. Certainly it’s not challenging to the audience. It’s a mild film, with the usual existential dilemmas exploited for comic effect, and the usual liberal stereotypes about Southerners to flatter Allen’s urban audience.

In “Whatever Works,” the Allen stand-in is Boris Yellnikoff, a misanthropic physicist (played by, as if you don’t already know, Larry David). After a 4 a.m. realization that he will, someday, die, Boris divorces his wife, quits his job at Columbia University, and moves downtown to teach chess and to kibitz with his equally intellectual (but slightly younger) friends.

Boris’s regained equilibrium is disturbed when Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) appears on his doorstep. A runaway, Melody claims to be 21, but she’s probably closer to 18. Anyway, she’s definitely of consenting age, at least in New York state, because she and Boris eventually marry. While this scenario may cause some eye rolling, I enjoyed watching their relationship unfold. Even if this test of our credulity gives “Whatever Works” its only challenging moments, the film’s unhurried pace and Wood’s charming performance make it entertaining to watch.

Patricia Clarkson is also charming as Marietta, Melody’s Southern belle mother, who undergoes a combined sexual and artistic awakening. And Ed Begley Jr. is amusing as Jonathan, Melody’s father, who experiences his own radical transformation. (Describing these shifts would spoil the best jokes of the movie.) But the problem here is not the acting. “Whatever Works” is another example of Allen’s ability to elicit strong performances. Larry David, who has made a second career out of playing a self-involved Jewish neurotic, is convincing as a philosophical, self-involved Jewish neurotic.

It’s also fun to see an Allen film set in New York again. The director has often employed what we might call Manhattan-magical-realism, wherein literate, hyper-articulate characters never have the same concerns about income or real estate as their real-life counterparts. While some may wonder how Boris can afford his artfully rundown duplex on a chess teacher’s salary, we forgive such lapses, knowing that Allen’s New York is a place of cafes and brownstones and sun-dappled sidewalks. In “Whatever Works,” even Chinatown is portrayed as tour-free and uncrowded.

But other lapses are less forgivable. Pleasant as it is, the movie is inadvertently unsettling. The problem lies in how Allen addresses the issue of age. Or rather, doesn’t address it. While it may seem unfair to make such points about a light comedy, the issue is too pronounced to dismiss. With the older characters, the fear of aging is dealt with only in passing — as is the age chasm between Boris and Melody. And as the film progresses, the blitheness toward this difference becomes more and more distracting.

Allen not only asks the audience to buy this relationship — he also asks us to see the characters’ difficulties as more a matter of education and temperament. To be clear, Allen’s own life is his own business. For me, this is not about bourgeois morality, it’s about the suspension of disbelief. I have nothing against May-December romances, but in “Whatever Works,” it’s more like February to January of the following year.

In “Manhattan,” another Allen film with an age disparity, the creepiness factor was to some degree subsumed by the relative youth of Allen’s character and by the film’s subtlety and intelligence. But not entirely. And “Whatever Works” throws light on the earlier film in discomfiting ways, suggesting, instead of variations on a theme, a repeated indulgence in male fantasy. Especially when Boris ends up with a woman who is supposed to be more age-appropriate but looks only 20 years younger rather than 40.

It would be stupid to suggest that Allen should be more like Roth, who, in novels like “The Human Stain” and “Everyman,” has documented the horrors of disease and decline. Nor should it be said that “Whatever Works” does not have its virtues. If it is, at times, a little slow, much of it is genuinely funny, even occasionally moving. The movie demonstrates that Allen is still in good form. But it also demonstrates that he has a blind spot as big as Central Park.

Gordon Haber last wrote for the Forward about the playwright Donald Margulies.


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