Monday, July 6, 2009

Whatever Works

By Elise Nakhnikian

A friend of mine once told me he always goes to see Woody Allen’s movies, even when they’re getting bad reviews. “I just want to make sure Woody’s okay,” he said.

I knew just what he meant, since I’ve hardly ever missed one of Woody’s movies myself. But trust me; you can take a pass on this one.

Whatever Works feels like a rough draft of a parody of one of Woody’s thinner efforts. Just thinking about it makes me as cranky as its tiresomely misanthropic lead. Do I really have to tell you what’s wrong with this thing? Can’t I just give it a thumbs down and be done with it? And what’s wrong with me, anyway? Why am I whining about doing something I usually feel lucky to get paid for?

Woody wrote this anemic script more than 30 years ago. Then he had the sense to put it in a drawer – until he needed something to shoot during the recent writers' strike.

It starts with a setup he could probably write in his sleep: A neurotic Jewish New Yorker on the downhill side of middle age hooks up with a lovely young shiksa. They eventually drift apart. Meanwhile, the New Yorker (who we think of as Woody, regardless of whether Allen is playing the character or how much he denies the similarities) tosses off a lot of sardonic asides and a few observations about the meaning of life.

Woody’s great or near-great movies of this ilk – Annie Hall, Play It Again, Sam, Manhattan – pair laugh-out-loud one-liners and sight gags with all the elements of great film drama, including magnetic actors, resonant relationships, beautiful cinematography, high emotional stakes, expert editing, and subtly evocative soundtracks. They pull me in every time I see them – even if I’m profoundly uncomfortable with parts of the story, as I am with the romance between a middle-aged man and a high school student that anchors Manhattan.

But almost all the elements that make the others click are missing from Whatever Works. Even the great acting Woody is usually so good at marshalling is missing from its center, though there’s plenty of it around the edges. As Boris Yellnikoff, the dyspeptic “Woody” character, Larry David windmills his arms and declaims his lines like a nervous ninth-grader in a school play. "I called him and said, 'Are ya nuts? I don't think I can do this,'" David says he told Woody when he realized he was being asked to play the lead. Too bad Woody didn’t listen.

Watching the rest of the cast concentrate its formidable skills and charisma on bringing their characters to some semblance of life is a lot like watching Dr. Frankenstein labor to reanimate a corpse: you sincerely admire the effort, but you cringe at the result.

Each of the supporting characters is a walking stereotype, with one defining characteristic that keeps getting harped on. At first you think Boris’s child bride, the angelically innocent Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), is the most fictional figment of Woody’s imagination you could ever hope to meet, with her jailbait ponytails, her bottomless naivete, and her broadly generic Southern accent.

Then Melodie’s repressed Southern-belle mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up to praise Jesus and flutter about in color-coordinated outfits, actually fainting dead away at one point - until Manhattan’s art world declares her to be a brilliant “primitive” photographer and she starts swanning about in black leotards and silk scarves, living with two men in what she calls a “may-nage ay twa.”

And then, just as you’ve readjusted your credulity meter, in comes Melodie’s busting-out-of-the-closet father John, (Ed Begley Jr.) and you have to crank it up to 11.

Speaking of going to 11, Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean also shows up – too briefly – as one of Boris’s three closest friends, who pop up every now and then to provide transitions between sketch-like scenes.

Woody did the same thing in Broadway Danny Rose, and it worked. But that’s because the guys in that Greek chorus were just the kind of third- and fourth-tier acts Danny Rose represented. The tales they told, the language and gestures they used, and the deli where they met were all an integral part of the story. Whatever Works’ underwritten, barely differentiated trio adds nothing but the narrative glue Woody was presumably too lazy to introduce more organically.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to like in Whatever Works. I enjoyed its view of New York as a kind of Emerald City, where everyone finds his or her true self. I also appreciated the fact that, this time around, Woody is not idealizing the creepy dynamic of an anhedonic old fart pairing up with a girl literally young enough to be his granddaughter.

At least, I don’t think he is. But then, I can’t be sure that any of what I got from this joyless romp is what Woody intended.

Whatever Works doesn’t.

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