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Larry David is an inspired choice to play Woody Allen’s Jewish New Yorker proxy. As the basis for George Costanza on Seinfeld and, well, Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s continued Allen’s talent for turning neurotic bitching into an art form. His age is also a plus: Can any film be considered classic Woody Allen if there’s not an old man chasing a young skirt?
In Whatever Works, that skirt is very young—to the point where even die-hard fans have to concede that this May-December romance is completely unbelievable, even if it’s predominantly mined for laughs. David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a retired physicist and divorcé whose upper-class marriage seemed perfect but fell apart because of things such as his 4 a.m. panic attacks about dying “eventually.” So after a failed suicide attempt, Boris moves into a cramped exposed-brick apartment and passes his days kvetching with friends in cafes about “this chamber of horrors”—i.e., life—and teaching chess. But, to no one’s surprise, Boris spends more time yelling at his students than guiding them. (He tells one mom: “Your son’s an imbecile! Teach him Tiddlywinks, not chess.”)
Boris softens a notch, though, when he meets Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a dippy Southern runaway who first asks him if he can spare some change but soon moves in with him. And, of course, falls in love. After all, what girl—Wood’s approximately 12—wouldn’t want to marry a guy who calls her “stupid behind all comprehension?”
Yes, they get married. And yes, Melodie soon turns into something of a Manhattan nihilist. To wit, she takes a job dog-walking and meets a cute boy on the street. “Can I walk with you?” he asks. “I don’t see why not, since we’re all doomed anyway!” she replies in her singsong-y twang. Then Melodie’s very uptight and very traditional parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) appear separately at Boris’ door, searching for their daughter with the intention of bringing her home. And though they’re initially horrified at the situation—“She’s nursemaid to a roach,” Mom hisses—don’t you know the big city ends up radically altering their personalities, too?
So, really, it’s not only the central romance that makes Whatever Works unrealistic. The script is literally vintage Allen, something he reportedly wrote in the ’70s and dusted off when the threat of an SAG strike loomed. And though it’s been slightly updated with Obama and Viagra references, the film still feels very Annie Hall: Boris repeatedly addresses the camera, talking to and about the audience, a gimmick that should have died with the Me Decade. Forty-odd years and as many movies have also rendered Allen’s wordy, woe-is-me existentialism not only familiar but predictable.
Yet Whatever Works is far from Melinda and Melinda, and if Allen’s deviations from his formula (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) have been enough of a palate-cleanser for fans—or, better, if you’ve just taken a break from him for a while—the film has plenty of laughs. Allen’s whines sound more like barks when filtered through David’s aggressiveness, but he’s inarguably great with a one-liner, whether referring to the small-town tradition known as the fish fry as a “barbaric social function” or telling Melodie’s father that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend has “four arms and two noses.” (You’ll see.) And Wood, an always-watchable and usually impressive chameleon of late, keeps up with Allen’s quick comic pacing while maintaining her character’s sweet loopiness. “I’ve seen the abyss,” Boris moans to Melodie during one of his dead-of-night panic attacks as he joins her in front of the TV. Without a beat, she responds: “Don’t worry, we’ll watch something else.”
Better, despite Boris’ tidal waves of pessimism, the film’s message is ultimately hopeful. The title refers to the character’s key-to-life mantra: If it makes you happy, go with it. Of course, you’re still gonna have to schlep through the chamber of horrors to reach such Zen. But if the road were all roses, this wouldn’t be Woody Allen