Yes, Woody Allen’s fortieth feature, Whatever Works, is Just Like All the Rest. So what? That should take a critic of average intelligence about thirty seconds to ascertain, or less if you want to start with the white-on-black credit typography; there’s still a whole movie left. Of course, willingness to wrestle with the latest Woody Allen release on its own terms is contingent on the given critic’s level of chumminess with the filmmaker. For the current generation of twenty- and thirty-something film writers, Allen is either crucial or a constant pest, a director as important to the landscape of contemporary American cinema as Scorsese, Lynch, and Spielberg, or as dried-up, irrelevant, and nebbishy as . . . Scorsese, Lynch, and Spielberg. It would be fruitless to try and convince those who grew up on a steady diet of his films—watching Stardust Memories before 8 ½, Alice before Juliet of the Spirits, Another Woman before Wild Strawberries—that he’s just a borrower and not an artist in his own right who brought classical foreign techniques and off-mainstream viewpoints to a largely crass national cinema. Conversely, for those who aren’t on Woody’s wavelength, who, heaven forbid, don’t laugh at every second of Annie Hall or get soul-rattling chills from Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s difficult to try and persuade of his importance.
For critics in either of these camps however, reviews of new Woody Allen movies still devolve into glorified lists of all those moments that make them just like every other Woody Allen movie. But in the case of Whatever Works, as with any minor work by a major director, the divergences are more telling than the similarities—and more useful to explore. In many ways the ultimate American auteur, Allen has labored upon a ponderous directing career for forty years, churning out films varied in genre but never in worldview, an oeuvre that has developed only in terms of sheer output, but not perceptibly in terms of emotional refinement, or what is commonly referred to as maturity. As a dubiously starstruck friend of Paul Lynde’s once said of the caustic comedian, he always thought of himself as “born finished,” and that must be a pretty apt expression of Allen’s immovable, immutable sensibility. It’s all always there, on the surface, whether packaged as a goyish family chamber drama, a Borscht Belt laugh riot, or a Euro art-house riff; whether it’s a success or failure, a “return to form” or a “stale retread”; whether it’s rigorous or phoned in. They’re generally marked by the same contradictions: atheistic yet oddly deterministic; for all intents and purposes liberal (in that dyed-in-the-wool Noo Yawk Jew way) yet in many ways fuddy-duddy conservative, certainly in terms of race and sexuality; and despite Allen’s reputation for off-the-cuff Manhattan-honed spontaneity in dialogue (the loquacity that led to Seinfeld, and hence the most viable recent comic revolution), his characters often feel like satellites surrounding a central philosophical idea, rather than real people who just happen to have certain beliefs, ideals, or weaknesses.
An intentionally needling comedy, Whatever Works plays right into the hands of his detractors—it even comes with a title laughably apt for the filmmaker’s increasingly one-take-and-is-it-time-for-my-Metamucil? approach; for others, though, it will be a reassuring stroll down memory lane (that lane going all the way back, of course, to the last one, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with which it shares a few plot points, despite its New York setting). But, as with many of Allen’s less successful films, if Whatever Works works, and here and there it does, it’s because of its occasional deviations from its maker’s playbook. Click here to read all of Michael Koresky’s review of Whatever Works.