reviewed by Marc Glassman
Woody Allen, director & script; Starring: Larry David (Boris), Evan Rachel Wood (Melodie), Patricia Clarkson (Marietta), Conleth Hill (Leo Brockman), Carolyn McCormick (Jessica), Henry Cavill (Randy James), Ed Begley, Jr. (John)
Whatever Works doesn’t. Just like its creator, Woody Allen, this film would have been funny 30 years ago–but not now.
Set in Woody’s beloved Manhattan, Whatever Works revolves around Boris Yelnikoff, a foul-mouthed eccentric and aging ex-math professor, who is barely getting by in a run-down Village apartment when he takes in a stray Mississippi run-away named Melodie. The long-legged Southern belle may be short on knowledge but Melodie wants to learn and grow into an adult in bohemian Manhattan. So the twenty-ish, charming and attractive Southern beauty marries the badly dressed endlessly upset kvetcher Boris, who is merely three times her age. If this sounds like most Woody Allen scripts since Manhattan, go to the head of your class. It is—but without the wit and elan.
Even Woody must be losing interest in his endless reworking of Pygmalion because most of the rest of this tired tale moves away from the patently ridiculous relationship between Boris and Melodie to deal with the sexual and emotional coming-of-age of both of the Southern girl’s parents. Separated from each other and missing Melodie, first mother Marietta and then father John show up in downtown Manhattan. Both discover sex in completely new ways, helping them to grow into better and happier people.
Patricia Clarkson provides the best performance as Marietta, who changes from a repressed matron into a sophisticated Manhattan photographer living in a ménage-a-trois. Also fine are Ed Begley, Jr. as Marietta’s ex, John, and Evan Rachel Wood as Melodie.
The big casting problem was choosing Larry David as Boris. Some people deem David’s semi-autobiographical star turn on the TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm to be hysterically funny. Others-including me—find him to be charmless, and, yes, I get the point that he is playing a deliberately mean-spirited character.
It’s revealing that Allen has admitted that Whatever Works was written 30 years ago for Zero Mostel. The star of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was an over-the-top vaudevillian who could have made Boris funny. He certainly was great as the shameless conman in Mel Brooks’ original version of The Producers. Mostel had charm, oodles of it, while David has none. Mostel might have made the Boris-Melodie marriage work while David had no chance at all. The scenario for Whatever Works should have remained on Allen’s “unproduced scripts” shelf after Mostel’s death—because, apart from Clarkson, this is a film that “doesn’t work.”