Whatever Works is not first-tier Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Annie Hall, etc.), but it's not exactly second-rate either (Celebrity). It does unite for the first time the talents of Allen and comedian/writer Larry David, and this is a very good thing. It gets a bit bogged down in secondary characters, however, and this is generally to its detriment. Fortunately, this is not too serious a flaw.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a classic grouch, a former physics professor once nominated for a Nobel Prize who now lives alone in one of the most fabulous New York City apartments you've ever seen and, for some reason, yells at little kids who want to learn how to play chess, for cash.
The title credits play with Groucho Marx singing "Hello, I Must Be Going," from Animal Crackers, a classic grouch song, and this is appropriate, as well as being a bouncy, happy way to open the film. Like in that film, our main character is our direct narrator, too, at times directly addressing the camera--not just to tell us how he feels, though he does that, but also to reveal his superiority to the rest of the characters, as only he knows this is a movie.
This mostly works pretty well, though there are times it could have been used more, better, or less. It's very like the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite, though it was used much more cleverly in that earlier film, and the two movies have other similarities as well.
Yellnikoff's life is changed when he meets Melodie St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, excellent), a young runaway from Mississippi who wheedles her way into his apartment, his life, and then his heart. She's very young, beautiful and trusting, and she takes to Boris's superior, misanthropic attitude like a duck to water, though she never quite buys a lot of it. This leads to some very funny moments when she begins to echo his opinions to others. Boris's life is changed, and he gets a bit better attitude in specific to areas of his life involving love, but in general he's still the pessimistic, overbearing grouch. This leads to further romantic complications.
Meanwhile, Melodie's parents come North looking for their missing daughter. First to arrive is her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, very good), whose husband has left her for her best friend. She blossoms in New York, though never warming up much to her daughter's new husband, becoming a creative and fulfilled person in a pretty believable way.
Melodie's father John (Ed Begley, Jr.) arrives a bit later, now stranded on his own romantic shoals, and is similarly nonplussed at first that his daughter has not been subdued with chloroform and kidnapped by white slavers. His encounter with New York changes him, too, but, though Begley is good in the part, this subplot is less convincing and probably could have been mostly left out.
There aren't as many intriguing characters as in some of Allen's recent films, but David and Wood are solid as Yellnikoff and Celestine and continue to entertain throughout. The happy ending could have been more oblique and felt more satisfying.
Whatever Works works, as a solid outing from Woody, even if it feels a bit forced and too easy in places, but it's lots of fun and well worth seeing for casual or serious Allen fans, or Larry David fans.
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