June 25, 2009

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Whatever Works (PG-13)
Larry David delights at channeling a most misanthropic version of Woody Allen in Whatever Works, a hokily charming comedy set back in Allen’s beloved New York City.

Boris Yellnikoff (David) is, basically, a miserable bastard. A self-proclaimed genius (he claims to have been up for a Nobel Prize), he believes himself to be surrounded by “microbes” and “inchworms” — his pet names for the rest of humanity. People make life so much worse than it needs to be, he kvetches to his friends, and then to us, speaking directly into the camera. He tells us the story of his life, which, by the time he was living in a dive apartment and earning money teaching kids to play chess, was pretty indulgently lousy. But then he all but trips over Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a possibly 20-something/probably teenage runaway from some caricature of a Mississippi small town who asks Boris for some food. He ends up inviting her into his apartment and letting her stay there — for the company, because she’s pretty, whatever. Though he insults her intelligence at every turn and she is far too chipper for him, they become friends — perhaps because she tolerates his quirks or perhaps because, not threatened by her like he was by his age-appropriate, professionally successful wife, he feels comfortable being some version of himself around her.

Then, more wackiness ensues. Her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up and is both repelled by Boris and enchanted by life in New York. Her father John (Ed Begley Jr.) shows up, having just dumped his mistress. There is some talk about Melodie’s family’s religion and then there are some changes in the relationship between Melodie and Boris, some cute and tidy little plot twists and finally the monologue you see in the trailers, about doing whatever you can do to find some happiness in this world, about accepting whatever works in your life.

These lines are the most earnestly delivered part of Larry David’s many speeches, asides, monologues and bits of dialogue which all seem to have the comforting quality of knock-knock jokes. For most of the movie, David seems to be barely keeping in a merry laugh at just how wonderfully miserable his Boris is. As the character Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he is an awkward, grumpy guy trying to fit in to society. In Whatever Works, Boris doesn’t care and can delight, as Larry David the character only occasionally can, in singing out to whoever will listen about how little he thinks of life and people. David is, well, the phrase “pig in,” uhm, let’s say, “it” comes to mind when I think of how wide and twinkly his smile is throughout Whatever Works.

The miracle of the movie, though, isn’t that David is having fun but that we get to have fun. There is a “take my wife, please” quality to the jokes here and yet the cornball humor is surprisingly successful. In one scene, Boris wakes in the middle of the night after having nightmares about his own mortality. A genuinely concerned Melodie suggests watching some TV to calm down.

I’ve been looking into the abyss, Boris moans.

That’s OK, we can watch something else, Melodie says.

That’s about the level of the humor, but it works, as does the stageyness of some of the scenes and even the oft-recycled quality of some of these quintessentially Woody Allen characters. I read the New York magazine story about David, Allen and the changing tone of American comedy before I saw this movie, so perhaps that put me in the mood to think about this movie in terms of comedy as an art form. But Whatever Works feels like old comedy in the way Broadway revivals can recall golden ages of theater. It could have felt like moldy nostalgia but it feels more like a well-played jazz standard.

Whatever Works is being called a return to form for Allen but its tone is something different — it’s a cheerier kind of movie, even, dare I say it, an optimistic one. It’s as though, after years of wrestling with miseries big and small in his movies, Allen has found in this tale some kind of contentment, even happiness. You leave feeling lighter. Who knew — the cure for the existential blues might just be a good corny joke. B+

Rated PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material. Written and directed by Woody Allen, Whatever Works is an hour and 32 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics. It opens in the Boston area on Friday, June 26.