Woody Allen's newest film doesn't.
Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David, HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm") is a self-professed unlikable guy. He roams the streets of New York, meeting with friends for lengthy discussions about morals and values, teaches chess to children he can't stand and tries to find some meaning to life. One night, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) pops up in Boris' alley. Hungry and homeless, Melodie needs a place to stay and Boris lets the Southern native stay with him. As the older man begins to talk, basking in the attention of his new audience, Melodie stares at him enraptured, ready to soak in every word, to learn everything he has to say. They are soon married and living a bohemian lifestyle in New York. Melodie's mom, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up looking for her daughter. Intending to take her daughter back home and deal with her cheating husband, Marietta soon falls victim to the bohemian charms of life in New York City and finds her artistic muse in two men she begins living with. Later, Melodie's dad, John (Ed Begley Jr.) shows up and he too falls victim to the charms of life in New York City.
Written and directed by Woody Allen, "Whatever Works" simply doesn't. First and foremost, a Woody Allen film is always better when it has Woody Allen in it. But I understand his need to want to grow and expand, to explore new themes and ideas. So it is understandable he doesn’t star in every one of his films. But if he is interested in working with new people, exploring new ideas, why does he always cast a surrogate for himself in these non-Woody films. In "Celebrity", it was Kenneth Branagh; in "Whatever Works" it is Larry David. David is a lot closer to Allen's age, which may seem like a better fit, but when you consider Allen's stories usually involve a relationship between his central character and the Next Young Actress, someone usually in their twenties, the Branagh stand in is more palatable. In fact, when Allen plays this character in his own films, it seems more palatable because we are used to seeing this dynamic. When he has a stand-in, it seems like we are witnessing something more voyeuristic and more unsettling somehow.
"Whatever" also marks somewhat of a return to past themes for Allen. In many of his films, an older man enters into a relationship with a younger girl, a girl who is drawn to the older man because of his knowledge of the finer things in life. In "Hannah and Her Sisters", Barbara Hershey is drawn to both Max Von Sydow and Michael Caine because they know art, classical music, theater, etc. In Fact, in the same film, Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fischer are also drawn to Sam Waterston, an architect, who shows them all of the things he loves about the city, including architecture and opera. In "Crimes and Misdemeanors", Anjelica Huston is drawn to Martin Landau because of his maturity and his knowledge of the arts ("Shuman! Schubert is flowery"). In "Whatever Works", Melodie is attracted to Boris because of his knowledge and is apparently willing to overlook the four generations of age separating them.
In the past few years, Allen has left behind his home turf of New York to write films taking place in London and Spain. Yielding mixed results, these films have at least given him a new set of ideas, a new location to explore, a new set of characters to work with. Some of these films have been great ("Matchpoint"), others have been terrible ("Scoop") and others have completely mystified thornhill ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"). But they are different.
So it is more than a little disappointing that Allen would return to New York and present us with such a retread of his previous films. I heard an interview with Allen in which he stated the film was originally written for Zero Mostel and when Mostel died, he shelved the screenplay. Apparently Allen felt Larry David would be a good substitute for his friend and dusted off the screenplay. Unfortunately, the film plays more like a cross between one of Allen's early comedies, something he might have written for television, and a Goldie Hawn film from the same era. He has done little, if anything, to update it and everything seems very old-fashioned and would seem silly if the story and ideas weren't so completely obnoxious.
Throughout the film, David's Boris talks directly to the audience. This is no big deal. We have seen characters break the fourth wall before, but when Boris turns from his friends and starts talking to us, we hear them say "Who is he talking to?" "What's going on?" Why use this technique at all if the other people in the film are going to make comments about it? It just seems childish and amateurish.
David is good and suitably cranky, but he doesn't really seem to be playing a character, per se, yet just another little derivation of his persona.
Evan Rachel Wood is almost unwatchable. From the moment she first appears, feigning innocence and using a completely overdone Southern accent, you never once believe she is an actual person. She sounds like she watched a few episodes of "The Closer" and is mimicking Kyra Sedgwick's accent, only more broadly and more badly.
Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. are both very broad and predictable.
Worse yet, Allen can't even think of an interesting way to end the film and simply has everyone gather to celebrate New Year's Eve, allowing Boris to pontificate once more about the meaning of life. Actually, this just allows Boris to bore us once more.
And this, in turn, allows Allen to bore us once more. Hopefully, the new "Untitled Woody Allen London Film" will redeem this once great filmmaker.