Whatever Works -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- Marking Woody Allen's first NYC-shot film in five years, "Whatever Works," falls somewhere in between his lesser London efforts "Scoop" and "Cassandra's Dream" and his return to form with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." While this comedy starring Larry David doesn't break any new ground for its creator in either style or content, it features enough genuine laughs to give it decent commercial traction, at least in the big cities. Due for a June release by Sony Pictures Classics, it served as the gala opening night attraction for the Tribeca Film Festival.

David plays Boris Yellnikov, an aging curmudgeon who several years back would undoubtedly have been played by Allen himself. 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 by the romantic entanglement that fuels the story.

Yes, we are once again 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 young Southerner, newly arrived in the city, who shows up on Boris' doorstep begging for a place to stay. Despite his misanthropic nature and apparent lack of any sexual interest, Boris almost immediately agrees.

Despite his slovenly appearance, insulting nature and generally loutish behavior, Melody is quickly smitten with her host, and the pair eventually winds up married. Things change with the arrival of Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who takes an immediate dislike to her less than gracious new son-in-law. She sets out to sabotage the relationship by introducing her to a hunky young actor (Henry Cavill). He's fallen in love with Melody at first sight and is prone to such announcements as "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 who 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).

While 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 both Wood, utterly charming here, and Clarkson, displaying her considerable comic talents. Both actresses, like so many others from Allen's previous films, may well wind up garnering significant attention come the next awards season.

Needless to say, "Whatever Works" also serves as a picturesque travelogue of Manhattan, although many of the locales, ranging from Chinatown to Grant's Tomb, are decidedly down less elegant than Allen's usual cinematic haunts.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Sony Pictures Classics)