Not everything works in Woody Allen’s first NewYork–based movie in five years (he’s gone European). Whatever Works feels like something out of time and, worse, out of step. Hell, Allen wrote the script back in the 1970s forZero Mostel. The grumpy old Jew at the center of this comedy of complaints — divorced physicist and two–time suicide attempter Boris Yellnikoff — is played not by Allen, 73, but by Larry David, 61. Allen wanted to go younger and angrier. Enter David, the fulminating joke engine of Curb Your Enthusiasm, whose Boris kvetches at the camera (meaning us) just like Allen’s Alvy Singer did in Annie Hall in1977. “The universe is expanding,”a worried young Alvy tellshis mother. Her retort, “Whatis that your business?” is acall to arms. Boris has made the universe his business. Hethinks we’re racing toward extinction while space and time laugh at “our sad little hopes and dreams.”
Boris is moving on down from the East Side to a funky crib near Chinatown. He rantsat colleagues (Michael McKean, Conleth Hill) and kidshe calls “submental cretins.”Allen’s characters have trouble expressing rage. As Woody said in Manhattan, “I growa tumor instead.” Not Boris. He rails against the “mindless zombies” eating away at the city’s intellectual life.
Into the toxic space of this misanthrope comes Melody St.Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a runaway Dixie beauty queen just past jailbait age.Think Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s before she started hooking.Wood is totally beguiling in the role, absorbing Boris’ cynicism but still charming him into marriage. Though we never see Boris macking on his bride, there is an “ew” reference to Viagra. The laughs fly when Melody’s God–fearing mom, Marietta (the captivating Patricia Clarkson steals every scene she’s in), hits the Big Apple to bring her baby home and stays to become hilariously corrupted. And that’s it for spoilers. On its way to an ending of surprising serenity, Whatever Works stutters and stumbles. Allen is covering familiar ground, and the timely reference to Obama just seems wrong. But no true movie fan will want to miss the comic mind–meld of Woody and Larry. On that level, at least, there’s no need to curb your enthusiasm.