Curmudgeon and self-proclaimed genius Boris Yellnikoff (David) reluctantly shelters dippy, homeless, runaway-teen Southern belle Melody (Wood) and in a senior moment marries her. Complications arrive in the shapes of Melodys outraged mama (Clarkson), her
Woody Allen's latest is both utterly characteristic and creepily off. Originally written for Zero Mostel in the 1970s, it went into limbo when Mostel died. It should have stayed there. Mostel could play a semi-monstrous character and still come off as lovable. Updated and centred on the misanthropic musings of washed-up quantum physicist Boris Yellnikoff, as played by the decidedly unlovable Larry David, Whatever Works is a Dirty Old Man’s fantasy and one long Grumpy Old Man rant.
Boris was “almost” nominated for a Nobel Prize but his disaffection with the world has seen him lose his professorship, leave his attractive, wealthy wife and fail a suicide attempt. When he isn’t holding forth to tolerant buddies he teaches chess to children he berates. The very familiar worldview of Boris makes one wonder why Woody didn’t play the transparent alter ego of a role himself, instead of deflecting it onto a too-strident David, who is not much of an actor despite his excruciating brilliance as his sour TV ‘self’. Diatribes are what he does, and Allen obliges with non-stop bellyaches about religion, politics and life’s meaninglessness. Not that we haven’t been warned. In his first monologue to camera Boris announces, “Just so you know, this is not the feelgood movie of the year.” No kidding.
Initially, Boris is a fitfully witty grouch when he’s quoting his cultural touchstones (“The horror! The horror!”), but as his riffing is interrupted by the uncomfortable plot (Evan Rachel Wood’s “sub-mental baton twirler” is young enough to be his granddaughter), the real horror sets in. The Southerners are caricatures of right-wing repression, while the liberal New Yorkers are no more attractive. Not even Patricia Clarkson can do anything with what she’s been handed.
Even as an Allen fan with the proper respect for over 45 years of highly individual work and almost 50 films, many of them masterpieces, it has to be acknowledged: this is awful. And as further evidence that the Woodman’s lost it, who ever heard of an Englishman called Randy?
Tragically making Vicky Cristina Barcelona look like a happy accident, Whatever Works is retro Allen that smacks of desperation.