‘Whatever Works’: Grumposaurus Rex, By Kurt Loder

Larry David, at great length.

[movie id="405297"]“Whatever Works”[/movie] isn’t a good Woody Allen movie, even by latter-day standards. It is, however, a surprisingly offensive Woody Allen movie, inviting us, as it does, to sneer at benighted Southerners, idiot Christians, stupid kids and their hard-rock music — anything, in short, that wouldn’t pass muster among the preening Big Apple sophisticates of whom the director is a longtime laureate.

Allen wrote the script more than 30 years ago, when he was making such incomparable films as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” Back then, his nebbish hostility had the fresh zing of underdog humor. Now he’s wealthy and celebrated and 73 years old, and that youthful comic stance, transported into the present, just seems crabby and sour. And while casting Larry David as the film’s lead character might sound like a masterstroke, it turns out to be an insurmountable problem. In his HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” David is an inspired improviser (and, in half-hour doses, an entertaining small-screen presence). He’s not really an actor, though, and so here, confined to Allen’s scripted dialogue, he seems wooden — you wait for him to bust out and soar, but he can’t. He’s just an amplifier for the director’s vintage misanthropy, and he grinds you down.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a cantankerous physicist who’s put his ex-wife and uptown life behind him and moved down to a seedy Chinatown apartment to cultivate his miserable worldview. In the opening scene, at a sidewalk café in the West Village, we see him wearying some friends with another installment of his round-the-clock rant about the rottenness of life — a “chamber of horrors” that “all comes to nothing.” Then, in a long monologue delivered directly to the camera (in the Woodian manner of old), he tells us, unnecessarily, that “I’m not a likable guy” and that “this is not the feel-good movie of the year.” We have been warned.

Boris’ life takes an unexpected and entirely implausible turn when he encounters a young girl huddled on the pavement near his apartment. This is Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood at her most lovable), who’s just arrived from Mississippi to pursue her fortunes in the big city. After some introductory insults about her intellectual inadequacy, Boris reluctantly agrees to let this vagabond sunbeam come in and sleep on his sofa. In the days that follow, he berates her nonstop for her stupidity and her pathetic taste in music (she’s never heard of Beethoven) and movies (or Fred Astaire). Nevertheless, within days, Melodie falls in love with her irascible benefactor, and before you know it, they’ve gotten married. (This self-flattering Allen plot device is as borderline-creepy now as it was 30 years ago, when the character played by 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway fell for the one played by the 43-year-old Woody himself. Now it’s even more deluded: the scrawny, balding David is 61; the dewy Wood is 40 years younger.)

Before long, Melodie’s mother, Marrieta (Patricia Clarkson), turns up, having tracked her daughter from Mississippi to Boris’ dismal digs. (Exactly how she did this remains blithely unexplained.) Marietta is an evangelical Christian — a moron, in other words — but Boris and his hip New York friends quickly straighten her out, and before long she’s smoking pot, sleeping around and wearing a lot of black, just the way everybody should. When her estranged husband John (Ed Begley Jr.) arrives chez Boris a short time later, he, too, turns out to be a Bible-beating imbecile, but the big city cures him as well, the silly fellow.

Allen’s cultural arrogance is breathtaking — especially in a man so out of touch he thinks a popular rock-band would have a name like Anal Sphincter, and that the country’s first black president “still can’t get a cab in New York.” When Melodie meets a young guy her own age (and delivers one of the film’s few great lines: “He’s not a serial killer; at least he didn’t mention it”), Boris launches into yet another tirade. Later, when she seriously reevaluates their relationship, he’s more magnanimous: “Greatness isn’t easy to live with,” he allows, “even for someone of normal intelligence.” Of course, someone of normal intelligence would never put up with this insufferable crank, even for a couple of hours. Lord knows it’s hard for us.

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