Whatever Works
A Film Directed and Written by Woody Allen

The new film from Woody Allen is likely to please his long-time fan-base. It's a return to the kind of socio-political comedy-of-manners - with a dark edge of anxiety - that informed films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (which it much resembles), Husbands and Wives, and Zelig - all of which date from the decade in which the script for the current project was first conceived. But the screenplay, originally written in 1976 with Zero Mostel in mind for the lead, doesn't seem at all dated.

Allen's primary concerns - with the transient nature of love and relationship, with the ephemerality of human life itself, with the search for a moral and spiritual compass - have remained the same through the years - and why shouldn't they? They are the basic issues with which comedy (and drama) has concerned itself since Aristophanes. Allen finds humor in the ridiculousness of human aspirations and self-importance in light of these overarching concerns, in the irony of man's hubristic pretension to be "master of his own fate," or even, for that matter, to understand who he is and why he does the things he does.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is a classic Allen hero, an absurd mix of insight and self-deception, of rationality and rationalization, who succeeds in spite of himself and gives personality to Allen's much quoted dictum that "90% of success is just showing up." In spite of his misguided, inept attempts to shape the world around him, Boris's transformation arises from the accidents that come to pass around him as he continues (even against his will) to be present in his life.

Yellnikoff is a genius manqué - considered but passed over for the Nobel Prize in Physics, a successful professor whose irrational suicide attempt (in a fit of pique, basically, over what he has conceptualized as the meaninglessness of his existence) ends in a comedic (off-screen) landing in an awning, that leaves him with a limp and a curmudgeonly attitude that clearly reflects his profound desire to find something more in life. He leaves his life of comfort behind (although his "slum" apartment is one most Manhattanites would kill for) and sustains himself by giving chess lessons to children whose abilities he brutally disparages.

One evening on his way home, he is waylaid by a fresh-faced young girl, Melodie St Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), fresh off the bus from Mississippi, who manages to talk him into inviting her up to his apartment, feeding her and putting her up for the night. The night turns into a "few days," the few days turn into "until you find your own place," and eventually the two begin a relationship which leads to marriage.

As is often the case in Allen's films of this period, there's a certain amount of "suspension of disbelief" required to imagine that the vivacious, beautiful and very young Melodie would be attracted to older, paunchy, critical, cynical Boris, who by his own account early in the film, is "not a very likable person." In some of his films, this has been a real stumbling block - but here, as in his best work, the unlikely affinity eventually goes down pretty easily, since it is exactly the point he's making - that the unexpected, the unlikely, the things we might even deem impossible are life's expression of its irrepressible power.

Further complications ensue that play out in a series of variations on this theme. Melodie's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who has been abandoned by her father for the mother's best friend, turns up, somehow locating her daughter among the teeming warrens of New York. Under the influence of Boris's bohemian friends, she becomes a completely different person, the sexually-liberated artist she was never able to become in small town Mississippi, but still (rather oddly) with a mother's ambition for her daughter and distrust of a son-in-law who may be older than she is.

Then, her father, John (Ed Begley Jr.) turns up, unfulfilled in his new relationship and longing to reconnect with his former life. Through a chance meeting he too undergoes a transformation to become someone entirely different from who he has imagined himself to be. Meanwhile, Marietta schemes to throw Melodie together with the (perhaps allegorically named) Randy James (Henry Cavill) a handsome young actor Melodie's own age who her mother considers (as so eventually does Melodie) a more suitable match than Boris.

The interweaving of all these relationships, the insights and personal transformations they catalyze are the real subject of the film. The plot is just a framework - flimsy and transparent from a "realist" point of view - on which to hang observations and reflections about the nature of our human interactions, in hopes perhaps that they may suggest transformations of our own.

It's a "comedy" in the Shakespearian sense, pleasantly reminiscent of Allen's wonderful A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy,his re-write of A Midsummer Night's Dream.Couples are united, separated, mixed up, reunited, and in the end there's a bride for every husband, all in service to the human impulse that drives us towards each other, whether we think we want to go or not.

It's an affirmation, in the tone of much of the first twenty years of Allen's career, of life's unquenchable longing for itself, that renders our neuroses, our self-importance, even our despair, somewhat ridiculous. Rather than "making a point," Allen is offering the opportunity for a cathartic experience (a structural feature of Greek theater - although not usually in comedy) of seeing our own foolishness and laughing, with compassion, at our own folly.

The film succeeds on the basis of its "big finish." Some friends of mine reported that they walked out after about twenty minutes, and I have to admit I found the first third of the film slow going myself. I had the impression that the combination of Larry David and Woody Allen could either be very good, or very bad, and the stilted, self-conscious acting and poorly digested dialogue made it seem as if it was going to be the latter.

Allen is often spoken of as "an actor's director," but he doesn't seem to have been able, at first, to put David at ease or to create a relaxed and natural feel between him and Wood. I was led to wonder, in these days of spiraling costs for movies, whether Allen's rather modest budgets precluded the kind of pre-production rehearsal that might have enabled the actors to hit the ground running.

At any rate, all that changes about the time Patricia Clarkson shows up. This much under-rated actress manages to set just the right tone to begin to galvanize the relationships around her into real life. She brings an exciting and unpredictable energy to every scene she is in and the other actors play off her with controlled abandon, as she enables new dimensions to their characters that continue to reverberate even in scenes in which she doesn't appear. Once she makes her presence felt, the film takes off.

Some of the script's conceits (most notably the relationship between Boris and Melodie) that have been stilted and awkward to that point suddenly make sense. All the actors seem much more at ease from that point on, more willing to take chances and more able to make the sometimes difficult dialogue snap and sparkle. It may not have been Clarkson alone - something else may have happened to change the mood on the set - but whatever it was, she enters into it with a will that makes it seem as if it might well have been her doing.

As he often does, Allen has assembled a fine cast. David is a master of the type of the neurotic intellectual, but he manages to distance himself from the "Larry David" character he plays in Curb Your Enthusiasm and embody Boris as quite a different individual specimen of the type. Although he seems a bit at sea in the character at first, once he warms up to it he manages to combine Boris's truly unlikable elitism and dismissiveness with a hidden but appealing tenderness and sympathy. He handles the direct addresses to the audience - a technique Allen has used in various ways many times in his films - with great skill.

Evan Rachel Wood also seems to be a bit off-balance during the first section of the film. It's hard to portray the development of sympathy and even affection with someone who acts as difficult and intentionally unkind as Boris does. She makes it clear why Boris might soften towards her - she's helpless, attractive and amusing - but has a much harder time making her interest in him believable.

Like a lot of Allen's female characters, she's a bit underwritten, and when she makes the switch late in the film, although it's easy to understand why she should prefer the handsome, virile Randy to the desiccated, emotionally spiky Boris, its not easy to see, given what's gone before, why she does. The change seems more like a plot device inserted to provide motivation for Boris.

I've said enough about Clarkson already, although it's hard to say enough. Her performance and all that she brings to it is reason enough to see the film. Ed Begly Jr. gives a wonderfully quirky and unexpected performance as Melodie's straying father and makes a plot twist that could have been a contrivance seem natural and sweet. Christopher Evan Welch as Howard helps him a lot.

Allen has been working with the same basic crew for so long that they make getting a big-budget look on a small budget seem easy. Allen's observational camera is more naturalistic than it has been in some of his recent films. Working at close quarters with the actors in what are obviously confined spaces, he still manages to keep out of their way and keep the viewpoints fluid and intimate.

Allen loves vintage jazz and pop, as well as the occasional classical theme, and the music in his films is always - even in his least successful work - a welcome and effective addition. His locations are well-chosen and photographed, his angles carefully calculated so that even amid the "Trumpification" of Manhattan he manages to capture scenes that recall the reason so many people fell in love with the city in the first place.

This isn't Allen's best film, but it is one of the very good ones. The "lightness" of the material belies his serious intent, which seems to be to make us feel better about our lives, to give us pause to consider how undeservedly lucky we are (always more than we are even aware), and how grateful we might want to be for whatever works in our own lives.

That's my take on it. What's yours?