Whatever Works

Larry David plays a cranky old man with a winning philosophy.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

2009

Whatever Works has all the markings of a late-period Woody Allen comedy — light, talky, haphazard, not particularly original. But it has an ace in the hole, which elevates it beyond movies like Scoop or Anything Else: the best-written, best-acted lead character in a Woody Allen comedy since Sweet and Lowdown. The rest of the movie does him no favors, but Larry David helps make Whatever Works into a movie that, while unlikely to endure as a classic, is the most consistently funny movie in the Woody Allen canon for at least a decade.

David plays Boris Yelnekoff, an allegedly brilliant physicist who now teaches children to play chess and walks from a limp caused by a failed suicide attempt. He’s on screen for most of the movie, and spends most of it misanthropically ranting and complaining, often directly to the camera. David, star of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the creator Seinfeld (as well as the inspiration for the character of George Costanza), is an acquired taste and this movie is unlikely to shift your opinion on him. If you enjoy his bitter, anxious view of the world and his sardonic delivery — and if you’re a Woody Allen fan there’s a good chance you do — then you’ll probably find that Whatever Works has a lot going for it.

It’s tempting to describe Boris as yet another one of Woody Allen’s thinly veiled alter-egos, and many reviews did exactly that. However, he actually struck me as a relatively original creation — and, I would like to humbly remind you, few individuals are as finely attuned to the subtle intricacies of Woody Allen’s characters as I am. Philosophically, he’s less resemblant of past Woody Allen characters than of the over-arching, unspoken themes of movies like Manhattan or The Purple Rose of Cairo. Boris’s belief that life is miserable, empty and cruel so, hey, do what you gotta do, has been running through Allen’s movies since he started making them.

If I had to pick a character that most resembles Boris, it probably wouldn’t even be someone that Allen has played. I think Boris could best be compared to Frederick, Max von Sydow’s angry, disaffected character in Hannah and her Sisters, tempered with a bit of the optimism of Jason Biggs’ Jerry Falk in Anything Else.

The opening scene introduces us to Boris with one of the oldest tricks in the Woody Allen playbook — he turns and talks directly to the audience. This time there is a slight twist, though, as Boris is the only character who can “see” us — everyone else thinks he’s just talking to himself.

Larry David in Whatever Works
“Let me tell you right off — I’m not a likable guy. Charm has never been a priority of mine. And just so you know, this is not the feel-good movie of the year. So if you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage.”

In his opening speech, and throughout the movie, David spends much of his time insulting people. He does this with great creativity and innovation. His vocabulary is diverse and impressive. He finds dozens of new, exciting ways to inform people of their stupidity. His anger is so verbose yet so pointed and cutting, it’s almost poetic.

Larry David in Whatever Works
“Did you hit my son with a chessboard?”
“That idiot’s your son? Do me a favor, don’t send that cretin to me anymore. I can’t teach an empty-headed zombie chess.”
“So you hit him with a chessboard?”
“I did not hit him with it, I picked it up and dumped the pieces on his head as an object lesson, to shake him out of his vegetable torpor.”

Larry David is uniformly funny, and never cruel or completely unlikable. It’s hard to pin-point why, exactly, that is. Part of it is his witty dialogue, and part of it is tied up in David’s demeanor, which is never quite devoid of affection. If Woody Allen himself were to play the part, Boris would probably come across sour and unpleasant.

Samantha Bee and Larry David in Whatever Works
“Checkmate, you little putz.”

Whenever Larry David is angrily ranting — which, again, is most of the movie — Whatever Works has an irrepressible, ramshackle charm. The rest of the movie is a different story.

The primary supporting player is Melody St. Anne Celestine, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She’s a 19-year-old runaway who Boris finds in the alley behind his apartment. Improbably, he invites her to sleep on his couch. Even more improbably, they get married.

Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works
Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works

Wood and David have a decent comic chemistry, but their characters’ relationship has no grounding in reality. There are a few funny moments where she tries to imitate Boris, who she looks up to as a genius, but I remain unconvinced that these two would not have grown sick of each other within a matter of hours.

Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works

Melody’s parents finally track her down to Boris’ apartment, but not until she’s been married to him for over a year. Her mother shows up first — played by Patricia Clarkson (from Vicky Cristina Barcelona) — and her father John (Ed Begley Jr.) appears a few months later. There are some realism issues here that I’ll be gracious and not mention.

Patricia Clarkson and Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works
Ed Begley Jr. and Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works

Melody’s parents, like Melody herself, are right-wing Southern Baptists from Louisiana, but also like Melody, they begin to change instantly once they arrive in New York. Within months of arrival, Melody’s mother abandons all of her deeply-held beliefs, moves into a polyamorous relationship with two men, and starts a new job as an avant-garde photographer of nude bodies. Melody’s father, John, undergoes an even more radical transformation. After a lifetime of closet-dwelling, he reveals that he’s gay on his very first night in New York.

Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. in Whatever Works
Ed Begley Jr. in Whatever Works
“I’ve just never been able to stop thinking about the tight-end on the football team...”

After Marietta (Clarkson) has her radical bohemian makeover, the movie embarks on a creepy subplot. Marietta decides to set her daughter up with a more age appropriate man named Randy (played by Superman-to-be Henry Cavill), and does this by orchestrating numerous meet-ups between the two of them and telling Randy everything about her daughter over the course of several months. Randy “runs into” her enough times that it technically counts as stalking. When they eventually end up at Randy’s house, Melody says “I shouldn’t drink wine, I get silly and touchy” and he responds “I know, your mother told me, which I why I bought it.” I literally cringed — ‘your Mom said to get you drunk so you’d put out’ is not a very romantic sentiment. The whole thing is almost enough to make a romance between a 19-year-old and a 61-year-old look downright wholesome by comparison.

Evan Rachel Wood and Henry Cavill in Whatever Works

Wood, Clarkson and Begley are all buoyant, charming and funny, although their characters are one note — or, I should say, two discordant notes. At first, they essentially act as big, wide targets for Boris’ insults, and later they’re hyperbolically happy and fulfilled. All three actors tackle both of those thankless duties with aplomb.

One of Annie Hall’s most memorable quotes was when Alvy Singer said “the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.” This movie turns the tables and depicts Americans from outside of New York as conservative, bigoted, sexually repressed, Evangelical closeted homosexuals who “make love” to sheep — and their “illness” of ignorant un-enlightenment is “cured” by coming to New York and living the way Woody Allen and his friends live.

The wild, unbelievable transitions of the characters made me laugh, but I’m not sure if I was laughing with the movie or at it. In his haste, I think Allen failed to make the movie’s tone clear. Is it an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek parable, or is this really how Allen views people who don’t live in New York? It’s possible Woody Allen is as narrow-minded as those who have dismissed him as a Godless, self-involved hedonist who’d sleep with his own daughter.

Whatever Works’ “message” is ostensibly an endorsement of Boris’ life philosophy (that you should do ‘whatever works’ to find some happiness), but Boris is miserable and frequently suicidal, which suggests that maybe he doesn’t have all the answers to a happy and healthy life. The other characters, meanwhile, are little more than caricatures. What Boris has to say sounds good, especially in his closing monologue, but this movie doesn’t make a particularly convincing case on his behalf.

Larry David in Whatever Works
“That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.”

Whatever Works marks a return to New York after a four year European vacation, and it’s the first time Allen has weaved the city into the movie’s story since Bullets Over Broadway. It’s amazing how much more natural and authentic the setting feels in comparison with Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. David’s residence — Manhattan’s Chinatown — is vividly realized, and Allen films in personal, unexpected locations. He never has to suddenly cut to the Statue of Liberty just to remind us where we are.

A scene from Whatever Works
A scene from Whatever Works

As was mentioned in just about every single review this movie received, Woody Allen originally wrote this movie’s screenplay in the 1970s. So yes, the movie feels dated, but when was the last time a Woody Allen movie felt modern? Virtually any one of his ‘00s movies, and even his ‘90s movies, could just as easily have been written in the ‘70s.

The only clue — if you could even call it that — that this movie is 30+ years old is that its perception of the artistic life is portrayed simplistically and with giddy awe. In later times, he would come to view it though a more jaded lens.

Anyway, Whatever Works is shallow and crude, but funny. With the exception of Hollywood Ending and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, I’ve reacted to all of Allen’s ‘00s comedies in almost the exact same way — with defensive, qualified praise. From where I’m sitting, Woody Allen has only made one truly terrible comedy this decade. Maybe it’s time to admit that this era wasn’t so bad.

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “I’m dying!”
    “Should I call an ambulance?”
    “No, not now, I mean eventually.”
  • “Our marriage has not been a garden of roses. Botanically speaking, you’re more of a Venus Flytrap.”
  • “What could I offer you but a bad temper, hypochondriasis, morbid fixations, reclusive rages, and misanthropy.”
  • “Here, I’ll put something on TV.”
    “I saw the abyss!”
    “Don’t worry, we’ll watch something else.”
  • “You are not the gentleman I was expecting.”
    “I’m sure you’d be happier if she married the guy who caught the biggest catfish in Plaquemin County.”
    “I’d be happier if she married the catfish.”
  • “Boris, where can I take her that’s fun?”
    “How about the Holocaust museum?”
  • “He jumped out the window and his suicide didn’t work.”
    “Well, you can’t win ‘em all.”
  • “If it wasn’t for sexual inadequacy the National Rifle Association would go broke.”

Fun Facts

  • Allen originally wrote this as a play (a play in the ‘70s).
  • The lead role was initially intended for his The Front co-star Zero Mostel. It’s tempting to think that it simply took Allen 35 years to find just the right actor, but there was actually a different, more practical reason to suddenly throw this pre-historic screenplay into action: there was talk of an writers’ strike on the horizon, and Allen needed to get something in motion very quickly, so instead of writing a new screenplay, he grabbed one that was already complete.
  • Despite starring in his own TV show and regularly appearing on Seinfeld, Larry David had only been in five movies previous to Whatever Works — two of which were by Woody Allen (Radio Days and Oedipus Wrecks).
  • Larry David is wearing the same glasses he wears on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
  • Boris disclosed that he had a crush and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind and gushes over her green eyes, but actually, Scarlett had blue eyes.
  • In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there was a moment when Vicky, upon hearing about Cristina’s new polyamorous relationship with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, shrugs her shoulders and says “whatever works.” Boris does the exact same thing in this movie (in fact, he’s doing it on the poster).
  • At her audition, Evan Rachel Wood said she’d rather not do a Southern accent unless she “had to” (i.e., until she was actually cast) because she didn’t want to go through the trouble of learning it otherwise. Allen said he related to this (of course he would) and offered her the part.
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