Thursday, June 18, 2009

“Whatever Works”: Woody Allen’s Homecoming


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When Pedro Almodóvar released his film Bad Education in 2004, I headlined my review, “Almodóvar Comes Home” because instead of spending his talents on stories involving women (as George Cukor and other Gay male filmmakers had done in the past), he had returned to his roots and made a sexually and socially edgy tale in which the protagonists were Gay, Bisexual or “Gay for pay” men. Woody Allen’s new movie, Whatever Works, has a similar — and similarly welcome — sense of “homecoming” about it. Allen has “come home” literally; after a series of movies both shot and set in Europe, mainly because European financiers are more likely than American ones to back films that aren’t based on comic books, don’t star superheroes and don’t feature spectacular action scenes, Whatever Works is both set on Allen’s home turf, New York City, and was shot there.

Allen has also “come home” thematically. Like his masterpieces from the 1970’s and 1980’s (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), Whatever Works is a film about the impermanence of human relationships, the ease with which people fall both in and out of love and the ways they simultaneously strive for happiness and sabotage that quest. His protagonist, Boris Yellnikoff (played by Seinfeld creator Larry David), is a bitter old curmudgeon, a retired nuclear physicist whose first marriage ended when his wife announced she was leaving him and he responded by hurling himself out the window of their beautiful moderne apartment. Now he’s reduced to living in a hovel and spending his time grousing with his old Jewish friends — did I tell you he’s Jewish? He’s a Woody Allen lead, isn’t he? — freely expressing his contempt for the rest of humanity. He’s got such a low opinion of the intelligence of just about everyone else that “inchworms” and “cretins” are the kindest things he calls his fellow humans, and when a woman complains that instead of teaching her son to play chess (seemingly his only source of income) he hit him on the head with the chessboard, he patiently explains that he didn’t; he just upended the board and poured the pieces over the little moron’s head.

Love comes into Boris’s loveless life anyway when he takes in a runaway, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played with just the right degree of guilelessness by Evan Rachel Wood, who outdoes Reese Witherspoon at Reese’s own act). Even for a movie couple, they’re a mismatch made in hell; she’s blonde, she’s not Jewish, she’s an airhead, she’s one-third his age and she’s a runaway from a dysfunctional Southern family. Her parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (a well-weathered Ed Begley, Jr.), broke up when John ran off with Marietta’s best friend — though that doesn’t stop them from coming, separately, to New York with the intent of bringing her back home. That doesn’t stop Boris from squiring Melodie around the city, showing her all the tourist attractions he’s so carefully avoided seeing in all his years there, and ultimately their companionship blooms into love and (then) marriage.

From then the plot is a bizarre series of reversals and character transformations that stretch, but fortunately don’t break, the bounds of credibility. One of the characters comes out as Queer, and as he did in Radio Days Allen tells this strand of his plot quietly, calmly, with dignity and an awareness rare in filmmakers generally that same-sex love really isn’t any different from opposite-sex love and it isn’t worth getting ourselves in a snit about. Like Hannah and Her Sisters, the film ends with an uneasy but hopeful coming-together of the various characters that provides a satisfying resolution to the story even as it leaves us making a sequel in our own heads and wondering how these people will continue to separate and recombine in the future.

Allen’s direction is utterly sure-footed. There’s nothing of the hesitation that has sometimes creeped into his filmmaking when he’s wondered why he was working abroad or in another genre or with stars he was told were popular whether they were right for his film or not. He gets marvelous performances from all his cast members, top to bottom, in a film that’s simultaneously an ensemble piece and a tour de force for Larry David. Reportedly Whatever Works was an old script Allen had written decades ago for Zero Mostel, who died in 1977, but only dug out of his files recently. It’s probably just as well he didn’t make it then; not only does this film strike me as a piece that, like Brian Wilson’s album Smile, it took a young man to conceive and an older, more experienced man to make, but Mostel would have been way too overbearing in the lead and you’d have wanted to strangle him after about 15 minutes. (The one film Mostel is remembered for, The Producers, worked because he was playing a character as offensively overbearing as he was.)

Watching Whatever Works, I wondered how the film might have been different if Woody Allen had played the lead himself. He’s certainly old enough for it by now, he’s got the same Jewishkeit as Larry David, and as an on-screen nerd before the word “nerd” even existed Allen would have been more believable as a retired nuclear physicist. But while Allen would have done the curmudgeonliness of the character as well as David, I think he would have had trouble with the lovability that’s supposed to lie underneath it. Boris Yellnikoff (no doubt Allen deliberately intended the pun on the word “yell” in his last name) is really a warm-hearted soul under all the misanthropic bluster, and David digs into the surface of the character and gives us both sides. In a film filled with typically Allenesque ironies, one of the biggest ironies of Whatever Works is entirely off-screen: the way a man best known for creating a hit TV series that was billed as “a show about nothing” is so adept at playing the lead in a film about something.

Perhaps no director since the great Ernst Lubitsch has built his films so much around “touches” — little bits of off-the-wall business that at once advance the action, offer us dramatic insights and simultaneously remind us that it’s only a movie — as Woody Allen. Whatever Works is full of them, from the name of the rock band Melodie goes to see with Perry (John Gallagher, Jr.) on her first New York date with someone her own age — “Anal Sphincter” — to the Hannah and Her Sisters-esque contrast between her and Boris’s musical tastes as a metaphor for their differences as people. Boris’s theme song is “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight,” presented in a 1950’s mood-music version credited to Jackie Gleason — the star TV comedian had a recording contract with Capitol, but his records weren’t comedy albums but easy-listening compilations, many (like this one) featuring the warm trumpet sound of jazz musician Bobby Hackett. Though the song’s yearning lyrics (“If I could be with you I’d love you long/If I could be with you I’d love you oh so strong”) aren’t heard in the film, Hackett “sings” them so eloquently with his horn that the record takes on the symbolic meaning Allen wants it to: as a metaphor for the ideal of romantic love his characters hold in their hearts even though they’re often sabotaging their quests for it.

Another one of the “touches” in Whatever Works is the way Larry David — like two of the comedians Allen idolized when he was growing up, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope — periodically turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly. Here the man who made The Purple Rose of Cairo (an inversion of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.: in Keaton’s film a movie projectionist dreamed his way into the film he was showing; in Purple Rose a movie character stepped off the screen into the “real” world) at once titillates and frustrates our expectations of what a movie should be and casts us as voyeurs, eavesdropping on the lives and actions of his characters. It’s a device Allen uses cleverly and with restraint — he could easily have overdone it and left us with the impression we were being harangued by Larry David’s character, but he didn’t — that adds piquancy to the film much like the ironic titles that commented on the action in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Is there anything not to like about Whatever Works? A few things: the cinematography by Harris Savides is way too dark and grungy — it’s one of those movies in which so much of everything is brown, one wonders if they’re going to use so little of the spectrum why don’t they just film it in black-and-white (as Allen actually did in Manhattan and Stardust Memories). And, at least for my taste, John Gallagher, Jr. disappears way too quickly and the actor whose character takes over his story function, Henry Cavill, is hardly as interesting either as a body or a personality. But for the most part, Whatever Works is a marvelous movie, quiet, low-keyed, moving, thematically and emotionally rich, genuinely entertaining instead of intellectually arid, and — most important of all — very, very funny. Even if you haven’t seen a Woody Allen movie in years, you owe it to yourself to see this one. Welcome home, Woody Allen.

Whatever Works opens Friday, June 26 at the Landmark Cinemas Hillcrest, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.