Movie Review - In Woody Allen's 'Whatever Works,' Not Much Does There was a time when Woody Allen's characters were both funny and recognizably human. Sadly, the work necessary to accomplish that looks to be something the writer-director can't be bothered with anymore.
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In Allen's 'Whatever Works,' Not Much Does

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

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

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And as the war goes on in Afghanistan, life goes on here in the United States, where Woody Allen has been making movies for 40 years. Critic Kenneth Turan says you have to care about Allen's long career in order to care about his new film, "Whatever Works."

KENNETH TURAN: Woody Allen is back in his Manhattan home base for the first time in five films. His latest effort is a quasi-romantic comedy about the relationship between misanthropic genius Larry David and a dim-witted Southern beauty queen turned young runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood.

(Soundbite of movie, "Whatever Works")

Ms. EVAN RACHEL WOOD (Actress): (Acting as Melodie St. Ann Celestine) Well, my daddy says that America bends over backwards for the blacks because we feel guilty, and it's crazy.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (Acting as Boris Yellnikoff): Oh yeah, your daddy, your daddy's a cracker. He's a bigot moron, your daddy.

Ms. WOOD: (As Melodie St. Ann Celestine) Well, you're probably right 'cause you're a genius. But, you know, for a little Mississippi girl like me, this is really exciting. So what kind of genius are you, anyway?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris Yellnikoff) What kind? Quantum Mechanics.

Ms. WOOD: (As Melodie St. Ann Celestine) Yeah, but what field? Like, music?

TURAN: This script 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 will 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 recitation of abuse quickly becomes more repetitive and tiresome than funny. How many times, after all, can you get a laugh by calling people imbeciles?

(Soundbite of movie, "Whatever Works")

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris Yellnikoff) Don't send that cretin to me anymore. I can't teach an empty headed zombie chess.

Ms. WOOD: (As Melodie St. Ann Celestine) I…

TURAN: There's too much hard-edged savagery in Larry David's line readings, much more so than in his TV show "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and it throws things out of balance.

(Soundbite of movie, "Whatever Works")

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris Yellnikoff) I didn't throw it at him. I picked up the board and dumped the pieces on his head as an object lesson to shake him out of his vegetable torpor.

TURAN: "Whatever Works" just doesn't work.

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

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the LA Times. And we review Sandra Bullock's new romantic comedy "The Proposal" and others at npr.org.

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