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DVD Review: WHATEVER WORKS



Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2009
Cast: Ed Begley Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Larry David, Conleth Hill, Michael McKean, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Woody Allen
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Rating: PG for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material
Run Time: 01h:31m:34s
Genre(s): comedy

"I don't like normal, healthy men. I like you." - Melody (Evan Rachel Wood)

WHATEVER WORKS

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I'll take curmudgeonly late-middle-age New York comedians for $800, please, Alex.

Movie Grade: B-

DVD Grade: C

Woody Allen's films are so frequently personal, and though he hasn't been in the tabloid headlines for years there's still so much public knowledge about his life off the set, that his movies pretty much invite psychological deconstruction. No, this isn't just 90 minutes of Woody on the couch, but you can't get around the comparisons between what's on screen and what's off it—sometimes, as in Husbands and Wives, this has yielded shocking resonances that can be downright painful with their truths. Here, though, you can't help but think that Allen's fragile ego and increasing distance from his youth has more than gotten the best of him. There are some virtues to this film, but it does feel, overall, like the indulgence into fantasy of an aging man, who simply has to believe that he's still got it, that pretty young things find him astonishingly desirable.

Frequently Allen has played this role himself; here his stand-in is Larry David, as Boris, a nuclear physicist whose emotional handicaps have reduced him to botched suicide attempts and mean-spirited chess lessons to hateful, overprivileged children. (One of Boris's few pleasures is in making these children cry.) Lo and behold, on his doorstep one day is Melody, a runaway from some anonymous portion of the South, with her honeyed drawl and cutoff shorts, part Daisy Mae, part Lolita. Gentle reader, are you shocked to learn that she falls deeply, passionately in love with the old coot who could practically be her grandfather?

You realize that David isn't really much of an actor; he delivers Allen's words, and there are too many of them, and David feels hopelessly hamstrung. It's almost like Allen is hermetically sealed here in his 1977 sensibility, though without the wisdom of the heart and a few extra ethnic jokes in a sorry attempt to pick up the slack. He can still work a punchline, goodness knows, but you sense that his famously hands-off approach with his actors is doing him and them a disservice—they're at sea, looking for guidance, and David just doesn't have the chops to make it work.

Far better is Evan Rachel Wood as Melody—it's a role that's been inhabited in Allen films by Mira Sorvino, and Scarlett Johannsen, and Juliette Lewis, and back to Mariel Hemingway over the years—but even her game effort doesn't make Melody more than a stock figure, almost something out of vaudeville. The same is true of her parents, played by Patricia Clarkson and a late-arriving Ed Begley—it's like Woody has gotten all his information about the South from The Beverly Hillbillies. It not only makes him seem ignorant, but it confirms the rest of the country's worst prejudices about Manhattan chauvinism. (But then, Woody Allen would be the poster boy for Manhattan chauvinism, would he not?)

You can't help but think that Allen's indulgences are just the sort of thing that David would skewer brutally on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and even though the movie kind of gets it together in the end to show some compassion for its characters, it's really too little, too late. This is one of those movies where you can't help but think that Allen is making too many—if he'd pause long enough to do some rewriting and stop forcing his own hand, we'd all be better off. And he wouldn't have criminally underutilized Michael McKean.

The production is a typically handsome one, and New York looks appropriately golden—also par for the course is the disc's complete absence of extras, other than an original trailer.

Posted by: Jon Danziger - November 9, 2009, 8:07 am - DVD Review
Keywords: comedy, new york, woody allen, larry david




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