Whatever Works didn’t.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Let me be clear: a Woody Allen film is an event for me. I usually see it opening day, and when the familiar font came up, with Groucho Marx singing in the background, I audibly sighed.
The major reason for this is Woody Allen films have, in my opinion, a clear floor. Regardless of the film, the wit will provide a dozen laugh-out-loud moments, minimum, and the characters tend to be well-drawn and inventively evoked.
For this reason, of course, my expectations are always sky-high. I don’t buy into the ridiculous criticism of Woody Allen that his films are all the same; a quick check of the similarities between Love and Death, Manhattan, Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Deconstructing Harry confirms this. And he certainly isn’t giving up on breaking new ground, as the fantastic Vicky Cristina Barcelona displayed last year.
But Whatever Works, alas, plays out like a draft version of many Woody Allen characters, with a script that reads like an early draft of a finished Woody Allen film, and ultimately plays out as awkwardly as you’d expect from a film with those elements. It comes as no surprise that this was a script in a drawer for 30 years, written for someone else, and finished hastily to avoid the writers’ strike.
The opening scene captures this draft quality perfectly. Larry David, who I adore, delivers an opening monologue which is heavy on harangue, light on laughs. The essence of the Woody Allen wit concerns little wasted movement in verbal delivery, as odd as that sounds, given the massive movement present in any Woody Allen impression. But this monologue drags, and Allen falls into his bad habit of putting way too much exposition into single scene, trying to get it out of the way. Worse, we find out that Michael McKean, the brilliant comic actor, is going to be utilized in this movie principally by nodding at Larry David.
The principal problem., of course, is Evan Rachel Wood’s character, seemingly the draft for the character Mariel Hemingway played in Manhattan. The age difference doesn’t bother me in the least. What is concerning is that I don’t for a moment find Evan Rachel Wood’s character, story or motivations credible. There’s nothing to her. She doesn’t need to be bright. She needs to be plausible. Compare her to Mariel Hemingway’s budding actress, and the difference is stark.
And so it goes with Randy James, who is in love with Evan Rachel Wood’s character. He’s an actor, he’s neat-looking, to use Annie Hall’s phrase, and he’s a touch less melodramatic than Jerry the Actor in Annie Hall. Patricia Clarkson’s character is the only one who shows much dramatic range, but she moves from one extreme to the other. It isn’t her fault- Clarkson actually does a lot with what can best be described as a cardboard cutout role- but there isn’t much that leads you to invest emotionally in her.
Compare her to any woman in Hannah and Her Sisters, and you’ll realize how empty this script is by comparison.
And let’s not even discuss limiting Ed Begley Jr. to a single scene, or Samantha Bee to a single line.
Ultimately, I’m not sorry I went to see Whatever Works. It’s Woody Allen. You will laugh out loud, and unlike nearly every Hollywood comedy, you won’t have to sit through people vomiting, soiling themselves, or getting hit in the crotch.
But this one, as I processed it compared to Woody Allen’s other films, landed somewhere in the Celebrity/Hollywood Ending range. I’ll be there for his next film. And I’d be willing to bet it’s better. And even if it isn’t, I’ll be at the one that follows. After all, I need the eggs.
Whatever Works — What Is Left To Say
AKIE BERMISS: When it comes to Woody Allen, I’m a fan. Plain and simple. Whatever his personal politics and moralistic relativism in real life. Whatever the somewhat questionable attempts at playing jazz. Whatever — Whatever. I’m a fan. And, I acknowledge, it could just be the Brooklynite in me. That’s possible. But I was raised on Woody Allen films. I was saying “…and the portions are so small” in the cafeteria in fourth grade. And wonder of wonders: no one laughed. But I quickly learned that being inside of the Allen cadre is its own reward.
And to my mind, he is quite possible one of the last of his kind. A writer-director of the highest caliber. With a distinctive voice and a steady hand at each step of the process. It’s rare to see that kind of filmmaker making pictures for big studios. A rare pleasure where Woody Allen is concerned.
I went to see Whatever Works (which open this friday nationwide) in Manhattan at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. And never have I felt more out of place that in that crowd. Just a sea of grey hair and palpable aged-ness. Lots of shabby plaid shirts tucked in to high-hoisted slacks. Lots of old ladies carrying multiple handbags and wearing ironic declarative tee-shirts. And then, little old me. (by coincidence, I sat behind the only other visible group of young people and listening to their banter was a truly rewarding experience.)
But I think I got along just fine.
Style and Panache
The first thing you notice in any Woody Allen film is the soundtrack — he loves the old rag-timey swing on the early 1900s. And you’re almost always going to get a pleasurable dose of that happy-fare when the movie starts. The second thing you should expect is that strange lead character. That angry, fidgety, wise-cracking New Yorker. He is our straight-man. Hilarity is begun there — with that character (occasionally, this character will be female too when Allen can find the right muse… a Diane Keaton or a Tracey Ullman or even a Scarlett Johanssen) and its good if you have a familiarity with Allen’s other films when Whatever Works begins because its starts off running. Its a 400-level course of Woody Allen. The main character, Boris (played rather solidly by an awkward but eventually perfect Larry David), is something of a genius — or so he claims — an intelligent, belligerent man. The kind of guy that, if you know enough New Yorkers, you’d know well enough (or at least you think “when So-and-So gets old, he/she will be like that…”) — and he’s a real throw-back Woody Allen kind of character. Where we’ve seen a great mellowing from Allen in recent years — a preference for more nervous, likable SARCASTS than the acerbic, unconscionable kind — Boris is a real cad. Just a total creep. He’s smart and he thinks everyone else is stupid. And he can’t stand it. I have to admit, I don’t know how Allen keeps coming up with more material. Just when you think he’s exhausted every sarcastic., biting comment on any given topic he rolls out a few more. Its an Allen device that few people have been able to imitate. Certainly these days its one of those signature moves that only he can do anymore.
Another brilliant move by Allen is the aside. And this is what gave me even more of a throwback feeling because you just don’t get these conversational fourth-wall-breaking asides in screen-writing anymore. Voice-overs, occasionally, but I think a lot of writers, directors, and producers are afraid of the direct aside. Because its hard to write — it takes a skilled writer who can really make the character come across without seeming like he’s just babbling (note: the 20-somethings in front of me said, at the end of the film: “That was the most babbling movie I’ve ever seen. What the hell was it about?) — and its even harder to shoot. Static shots lose your less engaged patient audiences. But I guess Allen’s got a built-in audience that knows how to handle a bit of verbiage. Boris periodically (but not too often!) speaks directly to the audience and though the rest of the characters can hear and see him, the CAN’T hear or see us and basically its a sort of meta-joke that, again, requires a bit of Woody Allen experience to come off right.
Well, you have your comedic-hero protagonist. Cantankerous, verbose, opinionated, and nervous. So enter his foil: a pretty, naive little runaway from Mississippi who falls in love with said hero. We, the audience have trouble believing it — but so does Boris. That is the basic premise and, as with all comedic Allen films, hijinks ensue. I laughed out-loud somewhat infrequently. Never did I feel a need to hold my guts in — but I was thoroughly entertained. I was reminded that a comedy doesn’t have to make an audience guffaw (though the loyal audience did guffaw a few times when the dead-pan lines came on the mark). It can be hilarious without all the slapstick and absurdity that have become the norm of the day.
As I will mention later, critical though I am — I’m not very comfortable saying bad things about Woody Allen. But there were a few downsides to this film. Compared to his greatest works — this is not really in the same category. I’ve always though Allen was best when he had a group of players. That’s why I can watch the Huston-Alda-Keaton pictures over and over even when I know all the jokes. He was writing, the Duke Ellington used to, for his players. And they brought something deeper and wonderful to the table. At this point in his career, Allen is such a force that I don’t think there are many who are able to contend with his writing and direction in the same way. While there are some shining moments, Larry David has some a bit of trouble really sinking his teeth in to the character. Is it because he feels himself dressed in the borrowed robes of Mr. Allen? or just a lack of acting chops? Larry David does a great Larry David… but is he ready to branch out from that? Can he?
And, in keeping with that Woody Allen Players idea, the other characters just don’t get the same attention that they normally would in an Allen script. Maybe this is the lack of muse-spark that comes from being something of a solo master. The thrill is gone, as they say. He can still do it better than most. But there’s no drama in the construction. He’s got it all covered. I saw Samantha Bee in there for about four seconds… and couldn’t help but think, “Man, now there is an Allen actress ready to play a serious role for him.” But she’s gone as quickly as she arrives. That too of Ed Begley Jr — whom I think of as one of the Christopher Guest Players. But there could have been some real opportunities taken with the other character — regardless of who was playing them. In that respect, the script falls flat and shows some alarming signs of fatigue.
All in all, it was a great film. And I DO mean film. Not a movie. Allen is a composer and his compositions betray his talent and dedication to craft. Much of what we find to be funny today owes its success to Allen’s wild invention days of the 70s. His anti-hero schlubbs, his idiosyncratic way of making New York a character in the story, his snappy dialogue — and on and on.
I liked it. But its hard to keep harping on how good Allen is. He is a master and, in some ways, above reproach. At this point he is so singular, so particularly Allen-like, so impeccably funny — what is there to say? How does one critique the master? I am reminded of a song by another master of composition, Abby Lincoln: “You Made Me Funny.” Allen is like that — he is a master AND a maker now. Like a great jazz musician that can pick up any instrument still have their own particular sound, Allen’s writing and direction is so powerful that in recent years he’s been able to put people like Hugh Jackman and Will Ferrel and, now, Larry David into his films and still maintain that particular Allen vibe.
A success, I predict. Its Woody Allen all over again. And I’ll add it to my collection when its available on DVD. (The kids in front of me would probably disagree. They were still puzzling over it as I left the theater seeming to want to give Allen the benefit of the doubt, but just not seeing how the film made any sense at all. I almost suggested they go watch some of his earlier stuff… but I figured I’d leave that to the older set who will sound less ridiculous saying such things.)