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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.