Marked by interchangeably trite and witty dialogue, “Whatever Works” is the definition of a minor Woody Allen movie. The director’s triumphant return to New York City after several years of European excursions finds him in familiar, if not exemplary, form. Most people on the Allen bandwagon will likely view this outing as a charming mediocrity. The decision to cast “Seinfeld” creator and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Larry David in the standard “Woody” role, of course, forms a theoretical match made in heaven. In practice, however, David’s neurotic insanity generally works just well enough to smooth over the awkward gaps in this half-baked plot. As a cantankerous physicist named Boris, David gets the opportunity to express relentlessly mean-spirited observations to everyone around him, including the audience. “This is not the feel-good movie of the year,” he tells the audience. Not that we would expect it to be.
Limping around as the result of a botched suicide attempt, the character monstrously embodies the characteristics of Allen’s worst protagonists. Why, then, would a sweet and rather simple-minded southern girl (Evan Rachel Wood), melt into his arms? That question never gets an answer as the girl, Melodie, randomly shows up at Boris’s doorstep after an ambitious journey from Mississippi and immediately crushes on him. Faster than the rhythm of a classic jazz tune, the two lovers become husband and wife. Their “marriage” has less credibility than the plot of “Bananas”: It’s random, abrupt and utterly non-romantic. We never even see them kiss. “I have been patient with your phenomenal ignorance,” he tells her, but the cynicism — just like their shared passion — doesn’t appear to register.
Logistical holes notwithstanding, there’s something strangely comforting about getting immersed in the Twilight Zone of Allen’s anachronistic New York. Melodie’s arch-conservative parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, both energetic and delightful) show up in search of their daughter and almost immediately become converted into chic city dwellers — which means gay, Jewish, artsy, promiscuous and so on. The rare presence of a homosexual character in Allen’s world doesn’t have the comedic resonance one might expect, but it’s an intriguing addition. However, “Whatever Works” mainly testifies to Allen’s devout consistency. The times are always a-changin’, but Woody remains the same.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.