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February 4, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Whatever Works

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Woody Allen’s career is not one I’ve gone to great pains to acquaint myself with in the past, having only seen two of his films before Whatever WorksManhattan and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Whatever Works skews very closely to Manhattan in that both tell tales of nebbish, cynical intellectuals living in Manhattan taking younger and more attractive lovers and espousing their views on life and love in the process.

But where Manhattan’s nebbish lothario, Allen, is an oddly charming man despite some of his behaviour and cynicism, Whatever Works’ Allen expy, played by Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David, is no such fellow. He’s a detestable, vile little creature, scurrying around with the sole purpose of belittling everyone and anyone while shouting his hate-filled ‘wisdom’ at anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be in his firing line. However, in this film, he’s meant to be like that. Boris Yellnikoff is his name, and being pessimistic is his game.

Larry David’s performance as Boris is one that understands the innate machinations behind the character’s every move. Boris gives off the impression of being a brash misanthrope, but there’s a hint of fear behind every action—a reluctance to confront his own mortality and his own place in the universe. He’s a character that covers his worry with bitterness, and has done it so often that it’s become second nature. However, that doesn’t make him a likable guy—in fact, it just makes him a coward as well as a bastard—and Boris knows it. He states it outright in his opening monologue to the audience.

The problem that arises from Boris’ default setting of ‘ugly’ is that it runs counter to the mantra he espouses time and again, the mantra Allen names the film after and builds the film around: “Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.” We’re meant to believe that a man who actively belittles people for “filching” happiness by bike-riding, eating crawfish, having sex behind the back of a Fish Fry tent or listening to bad dance music condones the idea of allowing people to find happiness wherever they please, and it feels incredibly false because of that. It’s an inherent fallacy in the film that it continuously fails to overcome, and the film feels empty and disingenuous as a result. Whatever works, indeed, but only if it works for Boris.

This problem is exacerbated by the film feeling like a propaganda piece for Manhattan liberalism. Allen wrote this film back in the 1970s, when he was still (relatively) young, and Whatever Works feels like a wish-fulfilment piece for young Woody (not that Woody’s worldview has evolved terribly in thirty years). In the film, Boris meets no less than three right-wing red-neck Southerners, caricatures who are only developed insofar as to make Manhattan’s eventual ‘transformation’ of them more triumphant.

These one-note deep South “inchworms” hardly take any convincing to turn into picture-perfect representations of Allen’s favourite people, and Allen doesn’t even hide his utter glee at these oh-so-easy transformations. While I may find rabidly right-wing Bible-bashers just as noxious as Allen does, Allen’s approach earns him no favours, feeling patronising and unpleasantly presumptuous. While the performances may be strong, and some of the dialogue is sharp—particularly David’s opening monologue, a funny and sharp stream-of-consciousness rant that David delivers with an exasperated zeal—Allen has undermined his own film by allowing it to become horribly condescending and glorified wish-fulfilment. Put simply, Whatever Works doesn’t.

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