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Whatever Works (2009)

by on 2010/06/20

I love New York. I love Woody Allen. I love Woody Allen in New York.

At the risk of appearing a jibbering fangirl, I should confess I’ve loved Woody Allen since I was 13.

I used to carry around a tiny photo of Mr. Allen in my wallet through high school and university. I’ve read Without Feathers five times and have probably seen Curse of the Jade Scorpion more than the film’s editor.

I stole an ashtray from the bar in New York where Mr. Allen played the clarinet. (Sorry).

Ok, I should probably stop now.

Woody Allen speaks to me in a way few writers, directors and actors ever have. Flawed, neurotic and ever questioning, Woody Allen always makes me feel less alone in a world where people wear self-assuredness and arch cheerfulness like a hairsprayed helmet of Sarah Palin hair.

Whatever Works delivers again on Woody’s tried-and-true formula: curmudgeonly, anguished man meets fresh-faced, optimistic girl and finds redemption for a time. Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David plays  Boris Yellnikoff, a physicist wracked by anxieties and convinced of the meaninglessness of life.

Quitting his job and divorcing his wife after a failed suicide attempt, Boris holes up in a dismal apartment awaiting death. He is content to spend his days teaching chess to children (and yelling at their parents), and ranting about poltics, religion and the universe with his middle-aged friends.

His life works until Boris happens upon Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a filthy runaway from Mississippi in his back alley. Boris inexplicably invites Melodie in for a quick meal and even larger serving of insults, and takes it upon himself to educate the countrified imbecile about New York, food and futility of existence.

There were moments of squirming discomfort watching Boris and Melodie’s relationship grow. Boris, the intellectual obssessed with hand washing, routine and staying indoors, and Melodie, the small-town girl with a tendency toward clumsiness, naivety and silly questions, hit a bit too close to home. Ahem.

There is so much to love in this film it would be impossible to recount it here. If I had a criticism it would be the  staginess of this mostly interior comedic drama. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, though charming, was too loud and broad at times, playing it a bit like the upstairs maid in a French farce.

Larry David seemed to be  consistently on the verge of cracking up but that’s part of David’s charm as well.

I loved the idea that New York is a kind of restorative, life-altering environment. Simply by entering the city limits and receiving a few days exposure to Boris’ circle, Melodie’s right-wing, moral majority parents Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.)  become their best possible selves.

I will do my best to remember the movie’s advice spoken by Boris: “That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.”

Funny, sweet and wise: Whatever Works is definitely worth your time.

P.S. Thank you for giving Annie Hall another chance, Mr. Renders. You are a mensch.

* * * *

Rated PG for substance abuse, language and Larry David’s barenaked knees

92 minutes

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