Woody Allen's icky philosophy


Whatever Works (M). Running time: 88 minutes. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson

Evan Rachel Wood and Larry David in Woody Allen's Whatever WorksAmerican actor Jason Alexander half-jokes that, early in the life of the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld, his portrayal of the hard-luck George Costanza transformed from a Woody Allen impersonation to a Larry David impersonation. He learned that aspects of the character's story had been lifted directly from the life of David, the show's co-creator. Thereafter George's nervy neurosis took on a belligerent, narcissistic dimension; a cheeky tribute to David.

David was kinder to himself when, later, he came to play himself in his other great sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb's Larry David character shares traits both with George and with Seinfeld's title character, Jerry, but he has redeeming qualities not possessed by either of those entirely self-serving personas. Usually (though not always) he means well. He attracts trouble through his ignorance of, or contempt for, the minutiae of social etiquette.

In Woody Allen's Whatever Works, the character chain closes on itself, as David portrays a more acerbic version of Allen's trademark neurotic heroes. He is Boris Yellnikoff, a lovable misanthrope, physicist and self-proclaimed genius (he was 'almost nominated' for a Nobel Prize). Following a divorce and a failed suicide, Boris walks with a perennial limp and a nasty attitude. He has no patience for ... well, for anyone. He earns a buck berating the child prodigies to whom he teaches chess. In short, he is like Curb's Larry on a really bad day.

Boris expounds a blackly comic, fatalistic philosophy, particularly in the realm of romantic love. When dimwitted runaway Melodie (Wood) drifts into his gruff orbit, she provides him not so much with an object for affection, but a bottomless hole into which to pour his endless existential bile. Melodie mistakes his obstinately bleak outlook for true genius and, wouldn't you know it, they fall for each other. Unlikely, sure, but what charm the film has comes from its contrasting Melodie's dumb cheer with Boris' OTT misery.

On the other hand, as a filmmaker, Allen is at his worst when he's being too clever. There is a recurring conceit in Whatever Works, that Boris, because of an expanded world view, is aware of something the other characters are not: that there is an audience watching their every move. His monologues to camera, directly addressing this 'audience' (to the bewilderment of his fellows), are initially humorous, but the joke wears thin.

That's especially true, given that one can't help but feel that Boris is a mouthpiece for Allen. Boris' views on the undefined nature of romance — 'whatever works', as the title suggests — is fine as far as it goes. But it seems a tad icky, and even takes on an air of personal apologetics, when you recall that Allen has been frowned upon for his affair with and subsequent marriage to the adopted daughter of his former lover, the actor Mia Farrow.

It is probably unfair to judge it on these criteria, but a film that is so blatantly self-aware, even self-indulgent, invites such associations; in this case, to its detriment.

In truth, that's a minor sticking point. There is fun to be had here. When Melodie's conservative religious mother (Clarkson) storms in from Mississippi and discovers the kind of man her daughter has shacked up with, she is outraged. Her loathing for Boris does not dissipate, even as city life and a burgeoning artistic career gradually expand her mind and her horizons. She makes an amusing foil to his unrelenting narcissism.

That said, Whatever Works demands a strong constitution. Those who find Allen's filmic idiosyncrasies unbearable will know already to steer clear. But David, too, can be an acquired taste, and if you've found yourself unable to sit through an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, then imagine enduring 88 minutes of his gravelly, spitting rants. The man is a comic genius, but it is a genius that polarises. So will this film.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Whatever Works, Larry David, Woody Allen, Evan Rachel Wood



submit a comment

Existing comments

It is incorrect to say that this film is some kind of apology for Allen's relationship with his adopted daughter, given he wrote 'Whatever Works' as a play 30 years ago and has only now made it into a film.

All the same, I look forward to each Woody Allen film release, if not just to hear the debate between those who love him, and those who despise him.
Sarah Forbes | 15 October 2009

Sarah - Yes you are quite right that Allen wrote the script 30 years ago. I guess my point was that, rightly or wrongly, knowing the details of the filmmaker's life taints some of the philosophy espoused in the film. It's more a matter of viewer perception than artistic intention.

Actually I enjoy Woody Allen's films, I am a Larry David fan, and I quite liked Whatever Works. I hope that came through in my review, despite a few criticisms.
Tim Kroenert | 15 October 2009

Thanks Tim for reminding me I hate most of Woody Allen's films and should steer clear of this one!
Mary | 15 October 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up