Whatever Works

Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. Written & directed by Woody Allen.
Rated M (sexual references). 91 mins.

When Woody Allen was not quite so venerable, he was able to make much comic capital out of playing the older man involved with a younger woman. But the march of time has stomped all over this perennial Allen scenario. He is now 74 and any credibility he had as a roué, even a comical one, ran out some time ago.

How lucky that he has found an ideal successor in Larry David, the writer/producer of the TV series Seinfeld. After that series folded, David created a rich comic persona for himself as the grouchy star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which he also wrote and produced. Now he steps easily into Woody Allen territory as an archetypal Manhattan misanthrope, Boris Yellnikoff, tossing off Woody Allen oneliners as if they were written for him.

As it happens, they weren’t. They were originally written by Woody for himself in the 1970s. But now he has dusted off the old script and updated it and cast David, a mere 62, in the Woody role.

David is drolly funny as the onetime physicist who dropped out after his marriage broke up and spends his time dispensing to anyone within earshot his caustic views on religion, politics, relationships, you name it, and the meaninglessness of life generally. His conclusion is that notions of love and morality are an illusion; relationships occur only because of random fate, they are invariably transient and his one rule for conducting them is “whatever works”.

And thus it transpires. Boris’s self-centred existence is invaded by a perky but naïve 20-year-old girl with a cute Southern accent. Melodie Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) has just arrived in New York and has nowhere to stay until Boris, in an uncharacteristic moment of charity, lets her doss down on his sofa for a few nights.

Melodie has fled her oppressive fundamentalist upbringing in Mississippi and responds well to the freedom of life in Greenwich Village. She uncritically accepts everything Boris spouts, and doesn’t bridle when he describes her as “a sweet kid but stupid beyond comprehension”. As one of Boris’s friends remarks, “she mistakes his pessimistic despair for genius”. As her stay in his apartment lengthens, she soaks up all Boris’s attitudes and prejudices and finds herself attracted to him. Boris, won over by such a personable disciple who also cleans and cooks, finds himself marrying her.

He unlikely pairing seems to be successful (whatever works) until Melodie’s mother, Marietta (Patrica Clarkson), arrives at the apartment. Marietta too has fled the South because life there collapsed after her husband ditched her for her best friend. Alcohol proves her undoing and she casts off her religious convictions and begins a new career as a photographer, staging a near-pornographic exhibition and living in a ménage à trois (whatever works).

Marietta, appalled that her daughter has committed matrimony with an ageing curmudgeon, also plots to subvert Melodie and Boris’s marriage by encouraging a handsome young actor (Henry Cavill) to pursue her ardently.

Melodie’s father (Ed Begley Jr) then appears on the scene, intent on trying to win Marietta back. But when he sees how she has changed, he takes refuge in a homosexual relationship with a man he meets in a bar (whatever works).

It is clear that this is not a screenplay that cares much for conventional morality. But it is typical Woody Allen fare, poking sly fun at the human condition and enjoyable in its own quirky fashion. The script is liberally sprinkled with witty Woodyisms, delivered by Boris with Larry David’s characteristic studied nonchalance. Particularly amusing is Boris’s habit of addressing the cinema audience direct, looking into the camera as if he can see them. It’s a joke that Woody used in his wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo, and which I recall first seeing perpetrated in one of the Marx Bros movies. It is probably no mere coincidence that Groucho’s absurdist classic Hello, I Must Be Going is the song played behind the main title.

It is good to have Woody Allen back in wisecracking mode, just having fun with a bunch of oddball humans and delivering yet another valentine to his beloved New York.

 Out October 15

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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