Movie Review: Whatever Works
By Matthew Huntley
June 29, 2009

Alas, the Harvard sweatshirt doesn't make him a better chess player.

For most people, cynicism and sarcasm don't come naturally. Many of us have to work at being critical. But there are also a select few who are inherently misanthropic, whose negativity amuses us because it sounds right coming from them. These are the same people we can only take in doses, because no matter how funny a pessimist may be, their bleak and acerbic outlook eventually erodes our own spirit and becomes exhausting.

Woody Allen is aware of this. He knows that his latest analytical comedy, Whatever Works, would have been too much to bear if it was only about its main character, Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), whose name is all too fitting for his personality. Allen makes a smart decision by making Boris a catalyst for other characters and situations instead of a one-man show.

Boris is a clinically depressed, obsessive-compulsive, bald man who believes human beings have failed as a species. He says we're decent by nature, and ideas like Christianity, Judaism, Democracy, Marxism, etc. are all good, but our greed eventually corrupts them. Boris doesn't think he's one to blame; he's just pointing out the facts. He believes he's so acutely perceptive and aware of everything around him he considers himself a genius. Maybe he is, but what a burden it must be to know everything that's wrong with the world. No wonder he's tried to commit suicide.

It's ironic how a genius like Boris can't successfully kill himself. He once tried by jumping out a window, but he accidentally landed on the canopy of his New York City apartment. Now he has a permanent limp. He's also recently divorced, he doesn't enjoy sex anymore and he wakes up paranoid because he thinks he's dying, even though that's what he wants. He'll drive you crazy, I tell ya!

Boris' lonely and routine lifestyle suddenly gets interrupted when a runaway beauty queen from Mississippi asks if she can stay with him. Her name is Melodie St. Anne Celestine, played by the hypnotizing Evan Rachel Wood, who becomes a stronger and more distinguishing actress with every film she makes. Boris agrees to let her stay with him until she gets on her feet, but being the older, unsettled guy that he is, she develops a crush on him. That eventually leads to marriage when Boris finds out how strong of an influence he's had on her. I know it sounds crazy, but I believed a young naïve belle like Melodie would actually find an angry, Jewish man like Boris sexy. Maybe it's because they're polar opposites and they should have nothing in common, which is the same reason they end up together.

The chaos doesn't stop. Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) is Melodie's neurotic mother who comes to New York after her husband cheats on her. Soon after a couple of dates with a couple different New Yorkers, the once conservative, devout Marietta discovers she has a taste for photography and starts fulfilling some erotic fantasies. The same goes for Melodie's father, John (Ed Begley, Jr.), who also finds a different kind of lifestyle better suits his needs.
Ultimately, the movie is about people re-discovering the fundamentals of what makes them happy, no matter how unorthodox. If it works, it's enough.

Allen's film has an obvious liberal veneer to it, but the bottom line is that it's riotously funny and entertaining, thanks mostly to David's quirky observations of mankind's flaws (my favorite was the line about public toilets). Allen obviously wrote a lot of himself into the character (he could be any number of Allen's characters from his previous films). It'd be interesting to see how long audiences would last if both Allen and David starred in the same movie. Talk about having a lot to bear.

Along with its humor, what ultimately makes Whatever Works work is the ensemble cast and the time it takes to develop all its characters, including those who enter the story late. Allen's screenplay teeters between Boris' harsh perspective and the rest of the characters' transformations. The same way the film balances itself, it reminds us of the balance we need in our own lives and the dangers of being too outspoken and not outspoken enough. It's not always in our favor to be in the know, either. Throughout the film, Boris breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, which is something only he can do, but we don't necessarily consider this a gift.

In the hands of a lesser director, a story like this might have turned into a mess, but I was impressed by how smoothly it all came together and how much it saw all its characters through with grace, wit and humor. The ending is a little simplistic, and Larry David is not a natural actor, but again, the movie is all about balance, and with that, what it may lack in some areas, it more than makes up in others.