Friday, July 10, 2009

Whatever Works

"And Sometimes, Finally, a Cliche is the Best Way to Make a Point"
"Mommy, That Man is Talking to Himself" ("Come Along, Justin")

Boris Yellnikov (Larry David) is a genius. A misanthropic genius, to be sure, but a genius; he's only too happy to tell you that he almost won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum mechanics, specializing in string theory. He's also only too happy to tell you that you're sub-normal, a microbe!, an inchworm!, a potzer!, a troglodyte!, a mouth-breather!—and in fact, at a couple points during the film he turns to the audience and turns on tell us what he thinks of us. A lot of movies choose to insult its audience these days (sometimes directly, sometimes by what the makers think they can get away with), but Yellnikov has the courtesy of treating anyone who chooses to listen to him the same disparaging way. He has a lot of views about quantum theory, the Heisenberg Principle, but never mentions the Konigsbergian Bubble Theory, in which the world is essentially a sub-set of forty individuals restricted to a single geographical point, 15 of whom have speaking parts.

"Whatever Works" is a return to
Woody Allen's World, and its story of a young girl turning the heart of a beast is familiar ground, coming across as a "Woody's Greatest Hits" film—you'll find bits of "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," and particularly "Hannah and Her Sisters" with its scenes of turmoil in the marriage between intellectual Frederick (Max von Sydow) and sensitive former-student Lee (Barbara Hershey). And "Whatever's" Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) is the latest in a long string of naive young waifs
portrayed by Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Mia Farrow, Mira Sorvino, Samantha Morton, Juliette Lewis, and Scarlett Johansson. One could make some excuse about Allen returning to themes he explored earlier in order to form a more perfect coalescence of his ethos and it would be as pretentious as it sounds. Allen says that "Whatever Works" is an early screenplay he wrote in the 70's with the intention of it starring Zero Mostel. When Mostel died, Allen shelved it. So, the truth is Allen has been cherry-picking from this script for years to make some of his earlier, better pictures.

Although this is one stretch of New York City pavement worn a bit thin, there is something unique about it. One thing you can count on in Allen's movies is his autobiographical characters,
the passive aggressive smart-asses played by Allen or a surrogate (past stand-in Woody's have been Mia Farrow, Mary Beth Hurt, Kenneth Branagh, John Cusack and Edward Norton). But Yelnikoff isn't passive at all, and David plays him as he does much of his 110%. This should get tiring, but it doesn't, and that's a very tricky thing to pull off. Mostel could do it, with his razor's edge timing and comic flailing, but David doesn't have his gifts as an actor. David merely sends off "vibes" that he could actually be this self-absorbed (he did create "Seinfeld," after all), and as with George Costanza, the entertainment value is in watching the train wreck. He's the reason to see "Whatever Works" (and his character is of the opinion that's the main motivation of the audience).

So, if you're going to go, go already, but understand that you'll see a lot of the same themes that have come before: of the chameleon nature of personality due to environment, of universal impermanence and the embracing of it, that it's a long, long way from May to December, and that it's not such a stretch for a physicist to move on from string theory, and pursue post-doctorate work on the ties that bind.

"Whatever Works" is a Rental (Better yet, rent "Hannah and her Sisters!")

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