(… but he doesn’t act in it …)
Whatever Works is about a brilliant man with a totally morbid view of people and existence — a real Woody Allen stand-in. Most of us manage to block out this fundamentally realistic view of existence most of the time, but Boris Yelnikov sees it and feels it every moment — no wonder he’s given to panic attacks.
Once a Physicist at Columbia University “almost nominated for the Nobel Prize” — echoes of Brando, “I could have been a contender” — Boris is now a professorial dropout who pays rent on his dingy, wonderfully textured Greenwich Village apartment by teaching chess to children, and berating them for their stupidity. For Boris, everyone is stupid except himself, and he believes this with good reason: he had hold of a unique understanding of the full tragedy of existence.
The scruffy, balding Boris, gimpy from a failed suicide attempt, meets up with Melody, an under-21 beauty pageant winner from the deep South who is, he thinks, stupider even than the other “worms” and “cretins” around him — this is as hilarious looking a September-May romance as has ever been filmed. Melody, played by Evan Rachel Wood, has the youthful comfortable in her underwear charm that’s characterized Allen’s leading ladies since Annie Hall. Allen has a wonderful time — so does the lucky audience — with their collision of sophistication and naivete, of his burdened, wary pessimism and her dreamy optimism and joie de vivre.
Melody’s small town Alabama conservative church-going Mother appears — herself a runaway from the disasters that, yes, even the most mainstream middle class Americans risk, and in no time she’s fully into the New York swing, showing her photographic collages of rearranged body parts of naked men and women at a tony art gallery. Uptight Dad — sort of a Governor Mark Sanford type — comes soon and it doesn’t take long for him to get liberated either, as it all spins off into an impressive series of mix-and-match loves (like Mom’s polymorphic body collages). And these loves are … well, “Whatever Works.”
New York City is lovingly filmed — the movie starts reassuringly, though somewhat slowly, in a Greenwich Village cafe, and gathers steam with the arrival of the finest actor in the cast, Patricia Clarkson as the Southern Mom. It’s a very funny movie but … if only Woody Allen were delivering the irony and pessimism himself. Larry David as Boris comes recognizably close, and at times even manages to look like Woody — or Woody’s camera manages to make that happen — which makes you realize whom you really want to see playing Boris.
Woody Allen cuts deeper and deeper to the bone of existence, which has always been his subject. As the movie moves along, he hands over his ultimate pessimism to love. That’s part of his genius: he never forgets who he is as an artist — a comedian — and by the end he lets you off the hook so you can leave with a happy smile — thank you, Woody.