Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whatever Works... Works!

Okay, maybe not the best title, but whatever.

Continuing my summer plan to spend as much as possible indoors sequestered away from the gorgeous weather, I went and saw the new Woody Allen movie Whatever Works this weekend.

The story is basically about a misanthropic former physicist turned chess teacher named Boris who, despite his general distaste for people, takes in a young woman from Mississippi who ran away to New York. They eventually fall in love, despite their age difference, and get married. And then life happens. I won’t ruin the ending for you in case you want to see it (if you like Woody Allen then you should).

He originally wrote the script in the early 70’s and wrote the leading man for Zero Mostel, who died before they could make the movie in 1977. The script was shelved until just recently, when Allen pulled it back off the shelf in the hopes of getting a movie in before an actor strike pops up.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the main plot point of the story (younger woman and older man fall in love) would seem to be a result of Woody Allen’s own personal life as he married the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow. However, the script was written in the 70’s and the whole Soon-Yi debacle didn’t happen until the 90’s. So that weird dynamic predated his own weird personal life.

The second reason this is interesting is where that places the script in the Woody Allen canon. The early 70’s would put this script after the earlier raucously funny but emotionally shallow days of Bananas and Sleeper but before the emotionally more rich romantic comedies like Annie Hall and Manhattan.

The story really reflects that transition. It’s a romantic comedy and it deals heavily with relationships and the nature of love and life and death, but it doesn’t have the same emotional depth to the characters as his later work and it still has those jokey moments I love from the very early stuff. There are even structural hints that suggest this transition, as the movie begins with a monologue directly to the audience from Boris, who is completely aware of the audience’s existence, even though the rest of the characters on screen are not. “Who are you talking to, Boris?” (I love that kind of stuff, by the way – the meta sort of acknowledgement of the audience’s existence.)

So, in a sense, it is almost like finding the missing link in the Woody Allen evolutionary chain of film making. And if you love the two periods of film that Whatever Works straddles, you will most likely love this movie too.

This includes me. And I’m a sucker for misanthropes, which Larry David does perfectly well throughout. It's hard for me - and this may be a function of my lack of Zero Mostel exposure - to believe Mostel could have done a better job. Although David could probably have benefited from a little more monologue coaching at the top of the movie. Once he gets in to the scenic work, though, he’s great. And his style compliments Woody Allen’s style very well. They’re similar enough to make this comfortable material but different enough that you still enjoy that unique Larry David ability to call shout at little children, call them idiots, take their money and still remain likable.

The remainder of the cast is strong, most notably Patricia Clarkson who plays a great conservative southern matriarch turned New York hipster photographer.

I think my one qualm with the movie, and what prevented this in my mind from making the jump from good movie to great movie, was that it was just that little bit of emotional shallowness I mentioned earlier. Boris is presumably the main character of this story, however I don’t really feel like he’s changed by the end of the movie. He begins a bitter, disgruntled but somewhat lovable old man consumed by his own genius, and he ends pretty much the same guy. Maybe just more convinced that he’s right and that he’s a genius.

In fact, there’s a scene where his young wife basically tells him that she’s met someone else. The character’s response is more or less “well, I knew this was going to happen anyway because I’m such a genius.” It’s a funny scene, but it felt hollow to me somehow.

Apart from that, though, Whatever Works is definitely worth seeing, particularly those of you who wouldn’t mind a quick trip back to the earlier works.

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