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Whatever Works

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Larry David in 'Whatever Works'

© Sony Pictures

Released on Friday, Jun 25 2010

Never let it be said that Woody Allen isn't prolific. For the past 25 years the beloved New York comic has, like clockwork, been releasing a film every 12 months. With such a relentless work ethic, it's perhaps understandable that Allen has struggled to replicate the brilliance of his early films Annie Hall and Manhattan (strangely, Allen himself isn't particularly fond of that one). Vicky Cristina Barcelona saw the bespectacled auteur rediscovering some of his mojo, but his latest release Whatever Works (made before the Cannes-screened You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger) is a so-so affair considering the presence of Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David.

On paper, it appears a tantalising prospect: two comedy greats combining, Allen finding a fitting on-screen surrogate and the filmmaker back on his old Big Apple stomping ground. It's a bit of a shame then, that the face of the film is Boris Yellnikoff (David), a crotchety old gasbag who's just about impossible to love, like or even admire. Allen's protagonists could never be described as Everymen, yet they're often charming in their insecurities and neuroses. Boris, a physicist who takes great pains to inform people he was nearly nominated for a Nobel Prize, has no such redeeming features.

Lecturing all who will listen (including the audience) on any subject that arises ("whatever works" sums up his worldly outlook), Boris's life is thrown off kilter when he encounters young Southern belle Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood). The pair form an unlikely Henry Higgins/Eliza Doolittle bond and Boris begins to impart his wisdom on her. Naturally, it's quite mean-spirited. "That's an awfully aggressive ensemble - are you looking to wind up in an abortion clinic?" is one such acerbic barb. Against the odds, their union becomes something more and they marry (Allen cuts straight past any scenes of May-December smooching). Complications arise when Melodie's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr) arrive and are understandably dismayed at her choice of husband, furthermore a handsome young actor (Henry Cavill) takes a shine to the young bride.

David melds his Curb alter ego with Allen's on-screen persona, but there's not the same endearing quality to Boris as there is 'TV Larry'. On Curb, his obnoxiousness and arrogance are constantly undercut by misfortune, as if the universe is somehow working to balance itself out. Here, he's spewing insults and berating all and sundry, yet seems to wind up in a comfortable place that he doesn't deserve. Thank goodness for supporting ladies Wood and Clarkson, who invest heart and humanity where David can't.

If it feels old-fashioned and out of touch, that's because Allen originally scripted Works for Zero Mostel in the '70s. Cinema has evolved and the way actors interact on screen is different. The rhythm of comedy dialogue has changed, yet Allen executes his script in a manner that leaves the cast swimming in a piece that feels curiously dated, like it's a lost picture from yesteryear.


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