Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Whatever" Doesn't Really Work

Sony Pictures Classics (2009)

I thought it would be appropriate to kick off The Residual with a review of a genuine film leftover. "Whatever Works" was a script Woody Allen wrote in his golden age (early Seventies), at the point in his career when the characters may have been relevant and its sexism acceptable. After watching this 93-minute, thirty-some-odd years delayed experiment in "rom-com nihilism," the major question one has to ask is, what does Mr. Allen, with this strange New York love affair, wish to accomplish through the discomfiting condescension of Nobel Prize Runner Up Boris Yelnikoff? Furthermore, should the audience -- the primary bearer of Yelnikoff's peevish "genius" -- accept this condescension as willingly at face value as the thickheaded supporting characters on the screen?

Now don't get me wrong. Not everything in this film is a failure. I even laughed a few times (the Viagra/red meat exchange quickly comes to mind). It's script is well-intentioned for the most part, even innovative in Boris' "breaking the fourth wall": a device employed to amusingly affirm Yelnikoff's otherworldly intelligence. I get it (though Alvy Singer did it better, at least more tastefully in "Annie Hall"). Hell, the directing is as glowingly affectionate as "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." But after the patient feminine complexity that allowed "Vicky" to succeed, there is simply no defense for the bizarre, underdeveloped and rushed (anti)romance that twists and turns "Whatever Works" inside out to reveal an unsettling lack of patience, a lack of soul, and a vacuum as empty as those Boris Yelnikoff studied in his academic years.

Whether the major disappointment with "Whatever" comes from the flaws of the script or Larry David's unsurprising inability to act as someone other than Larry David is up for debate, but any devout Woodyite will admit that a genuine comedic screenplay of his is immediately recognizable in its rough edges. These edges that more often than not roughen further under time's unforgiving press had been softened in the past by Allen's scrawny, harmless on-camera "innocence" that allowed us to patiently forgive the awkward or pretentiously obscure references thrown at silver screen damsels. This was because there was a sense that he was "speaking himself." That is, the lines felt natural even during Allen's most difficult neurotic moments. David's Boris is simply too difficult to digest and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth as his "As Good As It Gets"-ish moment of high horse failure proceeds to limp toward the plot's leaping conclusion. The necessary sympathetic backbone of the rom-com spirit comes up short; as brittle as its protagonist and at times impatiently contrived in its most (emotionally and sexually) liberated moments.

This is not to say that the other actors on the screen are much better than David. The characters at times seem to look past and "talk through" rather than to each other. The dialogue's delivery feels rushed, impatient and sometimes predictable. Even Evan Rachel Wood, who seems to shine through her most disturbed characters (cf. "Thirteen," "The Wrestler"), comes off as annoyingly sweet and overly accepting of Boris' geriatric curmudgeonitis. As with Wood's previous roles, however, her Melody continues to have mommy and daddy separation issues. Wood's (and Woody's) Melody lacks any sass that would effectively balance her naive Southern "hospitality." The movie loses its melody and romance in her redundant, tension-less motif that flutters aimlessly on its far off one dimension.

While Allen's homecoming presents itself as perhaps his most subtle affair with the Big Apple, the movie's internal romance lacks any semblance of subtlety. As a Woody fan, you don't expect patience from his comedic pen or vision, but patient subtlety may have been the one missing element that could have allowed "Whatever Works" to live up to its name; an element that could have helped to polish the crowns of two true kings of comedy.

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