In Allen's 'Whatever Works,' Not Much Does

Larry David as Boris in 'Whatever Works' i

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, an ill-tempered egghead character originally conceived for the actor Zero Mostel. Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics
Larry David as Boris in 'Whatever Works'

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, an ill-tempered egghead character originally conceived for the actor Zero Mostel.

Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics

Whatever Works

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Rated PG-13: Sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material.

With: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Michael McKean, Patricia Clarkson

Evan Rachel Wood as Melodie in 'Whatever Works' i

Evan Rachel Wood plays a dimwitted Southern belle to David's caustic, brilliant Yankee, but the contrast doesn't strike sufficient sparks to redeem a contrived plot. Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics
Evan Rachel Wood as Melodie in 'Whatever Works'

Evan Rachel Wood plays a dimwitted Southern belle to David's caustic, brilliant Yankee, but the contrast doesn't strike sufficient sparks to redeem a contrived plot.

Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics

It hardly seems possible, but Woody Allen has been making films for 40 years. That's worth noting, because it seems to me that to care about his latest movie, Whatever Works, you have to care about his career.

For starters, Allen is back in his Manhattan home base for the first time in five films. Then there's the fact that this new effort — a quasi-romantic comedy about the relationship between a misanthropic genius (Larry David) and a dim-witted Southern beauty queen turned young runaway (Evan Rachel Wood) — was apparently written by Allen more than 30 years ago, with the great Zero Mostel in mind to star as terminally bitter Boris Yellnikoff.

That's Yellnikoff with an emphasis on "yell." It's not Mostel you'll be imagining in this role, but the writer-director himself. Woody Allen's quiet presence would make the script's torrent of dyspeptic lines more palatable.

Yellnikoff's litany of abuse quickly becomes more repetitive and tiresome than funny. How many times, after all, can you get a laugh by calling people imbeciles? There's too much hard-edged savagery in David's line readings — much more so than in his TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm — and it throws things out of balance.

Whatever Works just doesn't work, in fact: The characters are stick figures, and both the film's incidents and its dialogue are so arbitrary they make Allen's recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona seem like an epic of neo-realism.

There was a time, in films like Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, when Allen's characters were both funny and recognizable human beings. Sadly, the work necessary to accomplish that looks to be something the writer-director can't be bothered with anymore. Political scientists study "Stalinism without Stalin," so maybe its time for cinema Ph.Ds to consider dissertations on "Allenism without Allen."

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