Of all the actors Woody Allen has recruited to play "the Woody Allen role" in his films, has there ever been a more inspired choice than Larry David? As a writer for Seinfeld, and now in his own Curb Your Enthusiasm, David's caustic, neurotic misanthropy fits with Allen's own nebbishy pessimism like onions fit in a knish. The only surprise in Whatever Works is that the collaboration didn't happen sooner.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a cynical, washed-up physicist genius who summarizes his philosophy thus: "You gotta take what pleasure you can find in this chamber of horrors." (The "chamber of horrors" is life.) To Boris, one's daily existence is futile and depressing, with only occasionally glints of sunshine. Most people to him are "inchworms" or "cretins." He has friends who take his grumbling good-naturedly, for the most part, but you can imagine what a pill he is to spend a lot of time with.
One night outside his Manhattan apartment he meets Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a naive and optimistic Mississippi girl who's just arrived in town with no place to stay. Boris agrees to let her sleep on his couch for the night, which is either highly improbable or a sign that he's not quite as heartless as he pretends to be. (I'm going with "improbable," since even a friendly New Yorker wouldn't let a homeless girl sleep in his apartment.) They develop a strange, comfortable friendship in the ensuing days; amusingly, it's not Melodie who rubs off on Boris but Boris who rubs off on Melodie, the beauty-pageant contestant and church-social attendee absorbs the curmudgeon's attitudes toward humanity and culture, even though she doesn't actually understand all the words he uses.
Melodie's crush on the older, seemingly wiser man is as cute as it is inevitable. Somewhat less cute (but just as inevitable, probably) is when Boris actually responds to it. Yes, this is another Woody Allen film in which a 60-year-old man dallies with a woman one-third his age. But the story doesn't end there -- in fact, it's just beginning. Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. turn up as Melodie's parents, fresh from Eden, Miss., and beguiled by the freedoms available in the Big Apple; more than anything, Whatever Works is Allen's ode to liberation, to doing whatever you please, no matter how unorthodox, as long as you're not hurting anyone.
It's also the latest of several Allen films to feature some very non-traditional relationships, so it's a little surprising to learn it was written some 30 years ago. Allen likes to make a movie a year, and last year's threat of an actors' strike (which never materialized) forced him to go into production sooner than he normally would. That meant dusting off an old screenplay he had lying around, and here we are. Whatever Works fits right in with Allen's '70s style, with fourth-wall-breaking and rueful examinations of love and sex, and a welcome return to New York after four movies set in Europe.
It may also be the last gasp of vintage Allen-style dialogue like this, between Melodie and her mother, who doesn't like Boris:
MELODIE: He jumped out a window and his suicide didn't work.
MOTHER: Well, you can't win 'em all.
Is there still a place in the modern comedy world for old jokes like that? I wonder. Allen isn't finished yet, though. The screenplay may be old, but it's been suitably freshened up with modern zingers, and while Larry David may not be a brilliant actor, he's always terrific at playing the exaggerated version of himself that he uses as his public persona. He's more than qualified to play Boris -- a character who would probably enjoy this movie, by the way, its credulity-straining storyline notwithstanding. The cheerfulness of the whole thing is just too infectious to ignore.
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Eric D. Snider (website) lives in Portland, Ore., where everything works.