Monday, August 31, 2009

Whatever Works review

Whatever Works

* * 1/2 / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

On paper, the marriage of filmmaker Woody Allen with comedian writer/actor Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") seems like a sure thing. Both have a similar dry, at times misanthropic wit built off rapid vocal cadences, their deliveries almost eerily similar in their respective works.

David, who previously appeared in smaller roles in Allen's "New York Stories" and "Radio Days," stars in his new film "Whatever Works" as Boris Yellnikoff, a self-proclaimed genius with an intense distaste for humanity, living alone in a rundown New York apartment and spouting sophomoric rants to friends at delis and coffee houses.

Yellnikoff is the typical Woody Allen protagonist, a man so awash in his own worthlessness he superimposes his issues onto the human race. That is, until teenage runaway Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) shows up on his doorstep begging for a place to stay, her ignorance testing the limits of his patience while her sweetness slowly cracks his stone exterior.

The script for "Whatever Works" was originally written in the mid-1970s for comedian Zero Mostel, but after the actor's death in 1977, Allen shelved the script. Though he has updated the material to include banter about a black president and terrorism, "Whatever Works" has one foot firmly planted in Allen's first decade of filmmaking, making it a smooth throwback to his earlier inventions.

Lengthy monologues delivered straight to the camera provide the basis for many clever jokes about the existence of an audience looking in at the characters' lives, giving the film plenty of sharp cracks about the film medium. Allen plays with film as a one-way conversation, as the characters of a film are able to "communicate" to an audience, while the audience is powerless to engage the characters.

"Whatever Works" also marks Allen's return to his native New York after four films abroad in Europe. Throughout his career, the director has produced some of the most loving photography of the city in any film.

Here, he works for the first time with cinematographer Harris Savides ("Zodiac"), who provides beautifully shaded and toned compositions that fit in perfectly with Allen's tendency to use long takes of characters trying to struggle through their problems at crucial moments.

Alas, "Whatever Works" remains largely impersonal and unfocused, a glimmer of a great idea without any carrying force. It's a delightful but minor film from a fantastic director.

Woody Allen's films are usually all met with similar criticism. His detractors claim he always makes the same film, while his admirers see him as a very personal filmmaker who uses movies to deal with his own neuroses and fantasies.

"Whatever Works" gives both camps plenty of fodder; it remains consistent with Allen's unified discourse as a filmmaker, while it lacks an energy to distinguish it amidst his cluttered filmography. David always remains a mouthpiece instead of a character, regurgitating Allen's dialogues of despair as if he's unable to bring his own caustic anxieties into the performance.

The supporting cast, featuring the terrific Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr., also feel tremendously under-written, played for broad and obvious laughs.

"Whatever Works" misses in many places and lacks Allen's usual level of creativity, but still finds enough laughs to work.

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