EmptyMarking Woody Allen's first NYC-shot film in five years, "Whatever Works" falls somewhere between his lesser London efforts, "Scoop" and "Cassandra's Dream," and his return to form with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The comedy starring Larry David doesn't break any new ground for its creator in style or content, but it features enough genuine laughs to give it decent commercial traction, at least in big cities. Due for a June release by Sony Pictures Classics, it served as the gala opening-night attraction at the Tribeca Film Festival.
David plays Boris Yellnikov, an aging curmudgeon who several years back undoubtedly would have been played by Allen. This is evident not only from the character's all-too-familiar predilections — he loves Fred Astaire and classical music and disdains rock 'n' roll, and his view of the universe is not exactly cheerful — but also in the romantic entanglement that fuels the story.
Yes, we again are treated in an Allen film to the creepy sight of a balding, middle-aged man proving irresistible to a gorgeous young woman. Here it is the colorfully named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a naive Southerner, newly arrived in the city, who shows up on Boris' doorstep begging for a place to stay. His misanthropic nature and apparent lack of any sexual interest notwithstanding, Boris almost immediately agrees.
Despite his slovenly appearance, insulting nature and generally loutish behavior, Melody quickly is smitten with her host, and they eventually get married. Things change with the arrival of Melody's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who takes an immediate dislike to her new son-in-law. She sets out to sabotage the relationship by introducing her daughter to a hunky young actor (Henry Cavill). He has fallen in love with Melody at first sight and is prone to announcements like, "I live on a boat and I read and I think and I play my flute."
Much of the film's humor revolves around outrageous character transformations. For instance, Marietta quickly abandons her repressed religious ways to become a free-spirited artist who specializes in photographing nudes and enters into a menage a trois with Boris' college professor friend (Conleth Hill) and a gallery owner (Olek Krupa). And Melody's gun-loving father (Ed Begley Jr.) has a life-changing encounter with a recently heartbroken gay man (Christopher Evan Welch).
Although Allen's screenplay features plenty of amusing one-liners — many expertly delivered by David, seemingly fusing Allen's persona with his own from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — its tired handling of so many overly familiar themes eventually proves enervating. As does the utter artificiality not only of the stereotypical characterizations but also such devices as the repeated breaking of the fourth wall, with Boris addressing the "audience" while the other characters look on in bafflement.
The film does, however, serve as an excellent vehicle for Wood, utterly charming here, and Clarkson, displaying her considerable comic talents. Both actresses, like so many others from Allen's films, might wind up garnering significant attention come awards season.
"Works" also serves as a picturesque travelogue of Manhattan, though many of the locales, ranging from Chinatown to Grant's Tomb, are decidedly less elegant than Allen's usual cinematic haunts. (partialdiff)