Friday, July 3, 2009

Whatever Works

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.


Sam Juliano said...

Somehow, Patricia Clarkson, usually reliable, run false here, and this is not the first time the Woodman has been uncomfortable with young actors. But yes, there is some nastiness on display in the first half, but (as you note) it does evolve into a rather charming sex comedy. I actually enjoy this film, warts and all, more than I did VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, but I know I'm in the minority there. David is a wonderful alter-ego.

There is always something reassuring about seeing Allen back on the home turf, and I was amused to see some of my own favorite haunts on display: Jonah Schimel's Knish Bakery, the Cinema Village, the Landmark, Chinatown and some notable lower East Side hot spots, all utilized to fine narrative embellishment.

Of course Woody's persistant philosophizing on the the unlikely prospect of our being born seems to be part of almost every one of his films these days, but all in all I'd say WHATEVER WORKS works mostly.

Of what you say here that would re-inforce my own position I site this:

"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."

Sam Juliano said...

It is supposed to read:

"Somehow Patricia Clarkson, usually reliable, rings false here..."

Ed Howard said...

I totally disagree about Patricia Clarkson, Sam, I thought she was fantastic in this -- so quick-witted and funny, and she manages to make her abrupt transformation seem natural and emotionally true. I loved her character, and from the second she first appears on screen, the film really seems to come to life. She was the best thing about the film by far, if you ask me. Her sparring with Larry David is a real delight, too.

All told, this is a minor pleasure, a lightweight, uneven comedy. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is in contrast major Allen, a late masterpiece that for me ranks among his very best few films.

Sam Juliano said...

Well Ed, I'll admit my position in comparing this with VCB is in an extreme minority, and I've heard the music from a number of my close associates as well. It's probably "me" on this.

Likewise, I fully understand what you are saying there about Ms. Clarkson, and I do love her as an actress, especially in her compelling role in FAR FROM HEAVEN.

And I do agree with you when you say that WW is a "minor pleasure," I may hav esounded more positive than I really should have been.

Patricia Perry said...

Ed -

Very fine reviewm,and as you know, you and I are very much in agreement.

I think your assessment of the younger actors' performances is absolutely correct. This is the weakest performance I've ever seen from Wood, and Cavill did absolutely nothing for me either; I never sensed any real chemistry between the two of them. As I've discussed with you and others before, I don't think Woody knows or cares much about what young people are really like nowadays, and it really shows in "Whatever Works."

Ed Howard said...

Pat, I don't know if Woody doesn't care about young people more generally -- I'd certainly argue that Anything Else and VCB, at the very least, display some sharp insight into people who aren't 70 year-old Jewish intellectuals. But I think his interest in young people is kind of sporadic, as the really lazy caricature of his "punk" son in Hollywood Ending attests, and this is a film where he seems much more interested in old age and middle age. It's a film about rebirth and transformation, not themes that really call for younger characters. That's my take on it, anyway.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I can't comment on the film as I haven't seen it yet (I hope to do so this week), but your thoughts on the uncomfortable nature of Allen/David's comedy in the first part of the film had me thinking about Gran Torino, and how all of the language in that film took away any momentum the film may of had -- and by the end I just didn't care enough about what happened.

Every time Eastwood's film got me kind of invested he would throw in some over-the-top language (usually racist and ugly) that would totally take me out of the moment. The language seemed to exist solely to draw attention to itself...and it just made for a weird movie-going experience and made the inevitable shift in character all the more unbelievable because I wasn't invested, therefore unable to buy the quick transformation (which sounds like may be the case with the new Woody film...).

I plan on seeing Whatever Works sometime this week. I'll be back with more thoughts then. Your review -- along with others -- make this an intriguing film study as it is clearly a polarizing film.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kevin. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on the film once you do see it.

I'm with you on Gran Torino, though, which made me really uncomfortable with the suspicion that Eastwood was encouraging us to laugh with rather than at his character's racist asshole demeanor. There's a similar vibe to Larry David's character here, who's just such a jerk, especially in his interactions with Evan Rachel Wood. The difference is that while Eastwood's racist jerk remains the center of the narrative throughout, Larry David's jerk here is supplanted in the second half by some much more interesting secondary characters. It then becomes a really enjoyable film (though obviously not everyone agrees with me!).

Aaron said...

Despite this being a "dark comedy," I feel as though Allen didn't go far enough.
With films like Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, and Sweet & Lowdown, he created three portraits of seriously unsympathetic, unlikeable, narcissistic people. I'm also thinking of the scene with Sydney Pollack and his young girlfriend fighting at the party at Husbands and Wives. Those films were much darker than Whatever Works.

Boris is a misanthrope, but he's a harmless misanthrope, sort of a curmudgeon with a heart of gold. For all his complaining, he doesn't seem to hurt anyone. He falls in love with a younger woman, but never takes advantage of her, and the sexual side of this relationship is basically played down completely--in fact, he speaks of sex only with contempt, as if to reinforce to the audience that he isn't a lecher. As he rants, his friends just roll their eyes. He proclaims his genius and superiority so much that we realize that he doesn't mean it or believe it. Only the scenes where he yells at children seem to hint at a truly violent temperament, but these too seem oddly harmless. His misanthropy is played for jokes, which is fine, but it never cuts very deep. Oftentimes it's funny but there's nothing really behind it and when the film pulls a bait-and-switch and becomes somewhat mawkish, I felt seriously underwhelmed. Larry David's character in Curb Your Enthusiasm goes to darker places, despite being less outwardly hostile to everyone, so if anything, the character feels stale. All of his complaints in the film are complaints Allen has voiced before, but in the mouths of more well-adjusted characters, they come across as more disturbing.

Only in Celebrity did Allen manage to make a character truly unsympathetic and hateful--and Branagh deserves a lot of credit for that (and it's no surprise that his performance was maligned because of it). I kept feeling during Whatever Works that Allen really was trying to create a lovable character, that Boris really is a "good guy" who's just kind of sad and should be pitied. In the end, I felt that this is really a lightweight comedy and unfortunately I found it only sporadically funny.

Ed Howard said...

Those are very interesting points, Aaron. Maybe you're right that that's why the film never progresses beyond the level of a mildly amusing minor effort -- it doesn't go far enough. It's true that Boris, no matter how nasty he is, is too much of a comic figure to be truly unlikable. This is one of the things that unsettled me from time to time. Since he's treated as a humorous figure the whole time, the moments when he really crosses a line -- especially some of the insults he tosses at Melodie -- are really uncomfortable because it's not at all clear if Woody means for us to be appalled or if he expects us to just laugh it off the way we do the rest of Boris' vitriol. That's probably why I liked the film much more for the stuff not dealing with its main character.

I agree with you that the very underrated Celebrity is far superior at this kind of thing. There, Woody's not afraid to create a truly unlikable character, to bring out the darker undercurrents that so often lurk beneath his lovably neurotic screen persona. That film's a true dark comedy, though the darkness perhaps overpowers the comedy in that case -- its humor is very acrid and angry.

Aaron said...

On a somewhat related note, I have a theory that the original plot for Whatever Works was much darker, but no one seems to agree with me and I have only a smattering of evidence to back it up, so it's probably not worth going into. But I think it accounts for some of strange things about the film.

Anyway, I think Woody himself is unclear where his sympathies lie and it ends up being a flaw in Whatever Works. He expects us to both laugh at and with Boris -- and he also expects us to be bullied by him. The film is constantly agreeing with Boris. He may cruelly bully Melodie, but then again, she really is a stupid hick. She's stupid but not evil, and this is something Woody keeps reminded us of. It's as if he forgives everyone for being morons just so long as they're not evil--whatever works.

You see this in some of his other films. In the embarrassing scene in Hollywood Ending with his punk son, the joke (which comes about 20 years too late) is that the punk son is obviously so stupid and crass and everything that Woody hates that it must be hilarious to the audience. He expects us to find it as repugnant as he does. Look! Green hair! But on the other hand, he admits that that doesn't make the son evil--only stupid. He tries to paint the son as somewhat sympathetic, but he can't bring himself to actually give him a discernible personality. In the end, Woody seems to say "You're a moron, but I give you my blessing."

That's the theme of Whatever Works. You're all morons, but I give you my blessing. You're all idiots, but hey--whatever works! And that's not all--you're all idiots, but I've graced you with a little knowledge, a little Dostoevsky, I've taught you that life is meaningless, and now you're going to abandon me--for someone stupider. And you're still an idiot. But you have my blessing.

It's amusing to me that Allen has these warring impulses. He is, on one hand, the world's biggest snob. His love of art is limited only to the intellectual heavyweights. On the other hand, he's constantly making films that teach us that it's okay to enjoy life once in a while, but he can never go further than the Marx Bros. or Fred Astaire; in Small Time Crooks, Allen and Elaine May sneak away and enjoy themselves by eating chinese food. Woody says something like (I'm paraphrasing): "God, this is so great, eating all this MSG, getting away from all that rich french food," as if he's actually--I don't know, giving his blessing to eat chinese food! He doesn't seem to realize that most people don't feel like "sub-mentals" (as Woody is fond of saying) for eating chinese food. Or for listening to punk bands like "Anal Sphincter." So we don't really need his blessing.

I agree that Celebrity really goes deeper than any of his other films at revealing the dark underside of the Woody persona, and I wonder if Woody realizes it. I have the script for Annie Hall and when I read it years ago (in the height of my Woody worship), it really gave me an insight that I've never quite been able to shake. The script is full of anger, vitriol, condescension--it's far angrier than Whatever Works. The vitriol is softened slightly in the film by Woody's persona, and a lot of the stuff was cut, but even the stage directions are full of condescension. I read an interview with Diane Keaton a few years ago where she said about Woody, "The truth is, he thinks I'm an idiot, but he likes me." That's sort of the plot of Whatever Works.

Jason Bellamy said...

So I finally got to see this today, and I agree that it's a mess. I wish I could say that it is an enjoyable mess, but the lows (or should I say dry spots) outnumbered the highs.

Personally, the only character I really cared about was Melodie. Wood gives this huge performance as this totally implausible person that's so terrific and heartfelt that Melodie actually seems real. It's magical, actually. (Can't agree with you about Clarkson, who just seems to be acting big; then again, I've never warmed to Clarkson.)

I think the problem with the Larry David character is Larry David. Yes, Woody has written one of his most "thoroughly unpleasant" characers, and he certainly is exhausting. But imagine those same lines all delivered by the Woodman. David is too tall, too powerful, too vital. When he says hateful things, they really sound hateful. Woody is the opposite. He's always been so meek, so unintimidating that when he says nasty things we figure that he should be allowed his verbal insults because that's as dangerous as he can be.

There are some good scenes in this film, and some good laughs. Although, a few times when I chuckled it felt a little forced. I found myself thinking: that's kind of funny, laugh. And so I did.

In the end this is what I expected when I went to the theater: a Woody Allen film. So, I got what I paid for. Not his best work, but that's OK.

Anonymous said...

Very very grim, chock full of outright hatred and intolerance, the potent nastiness then wrapped up in totally fake good feeling & shallow moralising. This film is not funny at all. I'm tired of the paedophile plot you see in a lot of WA films, it just is not at all funny any longer. LD is free to do whatever works for him in this film, but doesn't allow anybody the same freedom. Aren't free-thinking liberals awful people, I used to be one until I saw this film. You can hear the camera very loudly in several scenes and the yellow/green grading used in many WA films is like having a perceptual disorder.