Friday, July 3, 2009
Woody Allen's latest film, Whatever Works, is a shambling, loose-limbed dark comedy about the improbability of finding love and acceptance amidst the insanity of life. It is, by turns, awkward, painful (or just painfully bad), funny, insightful, aggravating, startling, sweet, bitter, and lots of other stuff too. It is as though Allen, having just made one of his most formally precise and carefully constructed films, the quietly affecting Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was determined to follow it up with one of his messiest, strangest movies, a frenzied patchwork that despite its often awkward construction and uneven performances, emerges as an oddball success by the end. At its center is one of Woody's most unlikable characters, the relentless pessimist and misanthrope Boris (Larry David), a man who's convinced that he's a genius and that nearly everyone else are morons — although what does it say about him that he's proud to be a genius among "inchworms?" He's a thoroughly unpleasant man, which makes it more than a little unlikely that so many people would like him and gravitate to him, seemingly instantly attracted to his unceasing stream of insults and his superior attitude. This is a typical trope for Woody, one he's never been able to get over, even when he's not the one playing the central figure: no matter how rotten and unsympathetic his protagonists are, he can't help also making them magnetic and charismatic in some weird way that the audience can't see but the people in the film, apparently, can. To the audience — who Boris addresses in the opening scene with a frontal assault of invective and complaints, a virtual invitation to walk out — Boris is mostly just a jerk, a guy with an inflated sense of his own importance, a once-brilliant physicist who now gets his jollies beating eight year-olds at chess.
Boris' schtick keeps vacillating back and forth between funny and enervating, and sometimes both at once. His non-stop flow of words, his negativity and despair, is exhausting. And the film is at its worst in its tentative first half-hour, as Boris meets a young Southern runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) and takes her in. The premise is so unbelievable that even Woody seems to know it, and the scene where Boris invites her up to his apartment is one of the most poorly staged and acted in the film, an obligatory few lines of stilted dialogue to change this guy's entire life; it's like a shrug, an acknowledgment of the flimsiness of the material, and everyone involved just seems to want to get it over with. It's equally hard to take Boris' condescending attitude, and Woody's willingness to caricature his heroine into a cartoon rather than a person — she's so dumb, so airheaded, so empty, and Boris just piles the verbal cruelty onto her as she smilingly takes it, uncomprehending. It's nasty and uncomfortable, and Wood's labored acting only makes the experience more painful.
Even when the film's at its nadir, though, there's something buzzing underneath, an undercurrent of vitality, the zing of the occasional funny lines that sneak through the misogynist abuse. And then something strange starts to happen. One day, Melodie's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up on the doorstep, desperately searching for her runaway daughter. She's a typical religious Southern housewife, another caricature, and yet already something seems different: she's witty and sharp and has depth. She's not an airhead, she's a real woman, and when she arrives Woody's hobbling script, salvaged from a wood-shedded 70s screenplay, suddenly blossoms into a real movie. Clarkson's a phenomenal actress, which is part of it, but it's also that the film opens up beyond its claustrophobic concentration on the improbable relationship between Melodie and Boris, and instead begins to branch out in all sorts of interesting, unpredictable ways. And when Melodie's even more straight-laced father John (Ed Begley, Jr.) shows up, the film's delirious satire really takes over.
What's going on here, actually, is a vision of New York as a place of seduction, not even just a place but a symbol for an entire lifestyle and way of thinking. Woody's film imagines New York as a permissive liberal Gomorrah, the nightmares of right-wing hysteria incarnate, a place that can suck in decent, God-fearing Southern folk and warp them into being promiscuous, or gay, or, worst of all, artists. It's an ecstatic vision of New York, the city Woody has always loved so much, as a place of transformation, a hub of freedom and choice and individuality, an incarnation of Boris' oft-repeated philosophy that whatever you can do in life to get a little happiness, a little pleasure — whatever works for you — that's a good thing. It's a marvelous twist on the old cliché (and Boris hates clichés) of the horrified small town hick who comes to New York and is puzzled or repelled by it — a twist on those hilarious Tina Fey impersonations of Sarah Palin coming to New York, "home of the liberal media." Woody is celebrating the aspects of New York so often mocked from afar, he's celebrating the artsy fartsy galleries, the intellectualism, the culture, the movies you have to read, the free love and affairs and unusual sexual situations, the openness to homosexuality, the rejection of religion. This is, more than anything, Woody's heartfelt celebration of liberal excess, and the most refreshing thing about it is that he doesn't portray the Southerners as simply stuck-up, close-minded, judgmental Bible-thumpers — when confronted with what New York has to offer, it turns out, they're open-minded and accepting and, hey, they kinda like it.
This is rich stuff, and richly funny, too. Woody races through the actual plotting, but not the emotions underneath — the transformations of Marietta and John are dizzyingly fast, but they make sense for the characters. Once the film gets past the awkwardness of its opening half-hour, Woody seems more assured, which is strange because one would think that if Woody was comfortable with anything here, it'd be the older man/young girl romance that's so familiar from his past work. Instead, it's the film's second half, which harkens all the way back to the madcap farce and rapid pacing of his earliest films, where the film really comes alive. Even the moments that should be weaker, like Melodie's romance with a ruggedly handsome actor (Henry Cavill), yield some unexpected comic delights. There's a charmingly funny scene where Melodie, still under Boris' intellectual sway, spits back a garbled version of some of his nihilist philosophy even as she's seduced by the young man. She manages to make Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle sound sexy, subtly shifting its meaning until it's an apologia for sexual passion and promiscuity.
Even better are the interactions between the older members of the cast. For the most part, Woody seems a little uncomfortable with the younger actors here, most of whom come across as bland and a little spacey, as though they're not sure what they're doing here or what they're saying — part of it is a lack of acting talent, part of it probably a lack of strong direction and the fact that Woody only sporadically gives them anything interesting to say. The older actors are looser, more comfortable in their skins and with this material, which is really all about the acceptance of mortality and the pursuit of pleasure in the face of death's approach. The comic rapport between David, Clarkson and Begley is natural and fluid, and their scenes together, in any combination, are simply packed with layered comedy and nuance. David in particular comes across as so frenzied, constantly blathering, and yet his timing is brilliant and precise. His best lines seem tossed off, as though he considers them throwaways, and yet it's hard to miss the way he always manages to place them perfectly into some momentary gap in the flow of the dialogue, as carefully placed as though he was building with words. Check out his attempt to ease John into understanding Marietta's new polyamorous living situation: when asked what her new boyfriend is like, Boris deadpans, "he's got four arms and two noses."
If the first half of Whatever Works finds Woody stumbling, even indulging in some rather nasty and hateful caricaturing, the second half of the film unexpectedly opens up into a charming, open-minded sex comedy, one that really believes in its title phrase. Perhaps only Woody Allen could make such an endearing and compassionate ode to perversity. The aesthetics are slapdash, and the camera always seems to be wandering around the set, constantly finding obstructions — pillars, furniture, walls — with which to obscure the characters from view. There's something appealing about this sloppiness. The film's surface is permeable, its artifice slight. Boris breaks the fourth wall whenever he feels like it, occasionally calling the audience aside for a chummy little chat or some obnoxious hectoring, though when he tries to get the rest of the cast in on it they play dumb about the audience's existence. This makes us accomplices to Boris' ego, an audience who actually pays to hear about his life, to learn his "wisdom." What we're actually paying for, of course, is the privilege of seeing one of our great directors craft a weird, messy, unwieldy little film, an odd pastiche that shouldn't be quite as entertaining and enthralling as it is actually is. But hey, whatever works.