Thursday, 1 July 2010

'Whatever Works' review: Larry David plus Woody Allen? Should be pretty, pretty good...

Larry David and Woody Allen have a lot in common. Both born in Brooklyn, both Jewish, both influenced by Groucho Marx. Both worked in stand-up comedy (though Allen with far greater success) and though both men have acted they are probably most celebrated for their writing. It makes sense then that Larry David (the co-creator of 'Seinfeld' and genius behind 'Curb Your Enthusiasm') and Woody Allen should end up working together, with David starring in Allen's latest comedy 'Whatever Works' (which also marks the filmmaker's return to his native New York after four films away in Europe). David had small parts in 'Radio Days' and Allen's segment of 'New York Stories', but this is his first substantial work with the director. Like 'Tetro' (also out now in the UK), 'Whatever Works' was released over a year ago in the US, but even then it is supposedly thirty years late, apparently having been conceived in the late 70s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel (who died in 1977).

It is oddly fitting that Larry David should be picked to play a role written for Zero Mostel, David having performed the role of Max Bialystock in season four of 'Curb', that series seeing him join the cast of 'The Producers' on Broadway. And whilst slighter in build, David is every bit as large a personality as Mostel. Perhaps not as loud or licentious as he could be, but every bit as direct and (most importantly) funny. Here he is funny as the misanthropic, embittered and pessimistic physicist Boris, particularly when directly addressing the audience ("I was considered for a Nobel prize in physics... I didn't get it!"). He is joined by Evan Rachel Wood's Melody, an upbeat and impressionable young Southerner who he allows to stay in his home and with whom he strikes up an unlikely friendship. As with all Allen film's an impressive cast of actors occupy the various supporting roles (including Michael McKean, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) and all perform well.

The problem with the film is two fold. Firstly the Southern characters played by Clarkson and Wood are too broadly drawn and cliché, with many of the gags revolving around supposed dumbness. The targets of the jokes are familiar and well worn (not least in Allen's films) and include religion, Republican politics and gun ownership. Evan Rachel Wood in particular is charming and winsome, but she seems more like a live-action Penelope Pitstop than a real human being. This may be the style of the piece rather than a flaw in the writing, which is perhaps less 'Manhattan' and more 'Small Time Crooks' in tone and style (certainly visually), but it is a less satisfying movie as a result. The second problem is that the film is only interesting or funny when Larry David is on screen and for long stretches he is not.

When Larry is on screen the film is funny, but usually because of his posture, his mannerisms and speech pattern rather than what he is saying. There are some genuinely funny lines, notably in scenes which see him castigating young children for failing to beat him at chess, but too many of the gags are obvious, such as the recurring joke that sees the dumb Southerners mistake Boris' sarcasm for a statement of fact (consequently believing that he plays baseball for the Yankees). However, it is amusing to hear Boris' ongoing rant about how everybody is less smart than him as it almost serves as a parody of the Allen character from many of his greatest films like 'Annie Hall' or 'Manhattan'.

In many ways 'Whatever Works' is reminiscent of 'Manhattan' in that the central character is romantically involved with a younger woman who he tries to educate and improve. He is patronising towards her, calling her a "sweet kid" and questions her emotional development. Both go on the same journey, becoming more accepting of those they consider beneath them. Borris is eventually able to contemplate a relationship with the most irrational and non-scientific of people: a psychic.

It is hard to find fault with the film's philosophy, that (to quote the closing monologue) "whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works." Woody's heart is in the right place and his suggestion that we should embrace love wherever we find it (possibly a point he is compelled to make as a means of self-defense against outside judgements of his own personal life) is a wise one. But from an intellectual standpoint 'Whatever Works' is certainly Allen-lite.

It is hard to imagine that 'Whatever Works' will be an enduring classic of the Woody Allen canon. It is pleasant enough to watch. There are some funny moments and it's always nice to see Woody shoot his Autumnal romanticised view of New York and to hear his familiar musical choices (the highlight being Groucho Marx singing "Hello, I Must Be Going" from 'Animal Crackers' over the opening credits). But there is nothing fresh here, nothing to make the film stand out. In the end it is less than the sum of its parts, the dream pairing of Larry David and Woody Allen less satisfying than watching an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' or a vintage Woody Allen movie. I suspect 'Whatever Works' was not simply a screenplay put on hiatus due to the death of Zero Mostel, but rather because its writer used to have better ideas and make better films.

'Whatever Works' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is still on general release in cinemas across the UK. It is playing at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton until next Thursday.

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