Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Ed Begley
Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Larry David, Conleth Hill, Michael McKean, Evan Rachel
Director: Woody Allen
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: October 27, 2009
“This is not the feel good movie of the year. So if you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good…eh, go get yourself a foot massage.”
Woody Allen and Larry David: two comedy geniuses in their own right. Even though I never thought I’d see the day when these two would be working on a project together, such a collaboration would make a great deal of sense. Each possesses a profound, neurotic persona that would seem like the perfect comedic marriage.
As fate would have it, Allen had the perfect screenplay to fit around the cranky and cynical persona of the co-creator of Seinfeld. He actually wrote it more than thirty years ago, hoping to originally cast Zero Mostel in the lead role. So when you take into account the notion that David was something of a last resort in the casting, Whatever Works ends up being a most appropriate title.
The film also finds Allen returning to both observant, character based comedy and New York City. Since his previous four films were all shot in European locations, it seemed iffy if Allen would revisit his stomping grounds any time soon. Even though I appreciate the direction he was taking (I find Match Point to be his purest masterpiece to date, and I also really enjoyed Cassandra’s Dream), it was definitely refreshing to experience good old fashioned Woody Allen, which is what best sums up Whatever Works.
As expected, David is pitch perfect in the role of Boris Yellnikoff, a very bitter and somewhat unlikable New Yorker that isn’t so far off from the Larry David we know and love on the brilliant series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Nicely echoing Annie Hall, Boris addresses the audience in detailing the ups and downs…well, mostly downs of his life. Within his first monologue, we learn that he’s not a likable guy, he once attempted suicide and was nominated for the Nobel Prize…but didn’t get it. In other words, he’s just the sort of character only Woody Allen could create.
And indeed, Boris’ life has followed quite an unpredictable path. When we first see him, he’s living the good life as a professor married to a very wealthy woman. But even those pleasures in life can’t prevent him from having nightmares about what the cruelty life has in store, which then leads to his failed suicide attempt.
Months after the incident, he divorced his wife, moved downtown and just gave up on life. He now makes a living teaching chess to little children, whom he also can’t stand. He also spends his nights discussing thoughts on life with a small group of acquaintances that somehow are willing to listen to his rants.
But his life takes an unexpected detour when he comes across a young girl named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping on his doorstep. She’s a runaway from Mississippi and a former beauty queen, otherwise known as the most complete opposite of Boris in the known universe. She convinces him to let her come in for food and a temporary place to stay.
Much to Boris’ surprise, and ours, the two develop a relationship that eventually becomes a marriage. Melodie finds attraction the polar opposite qualities of Boris. Even as he complains about her to everyone he knows, even he can’t deny the attraction.
The story takes a turn once Melodie’s mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), arrives in town looking to take her daughter home. She happens to be the extremely religious type, so one could only imagine her reaction to discovering that her teenage daughter is now married to a Jewish man, not to mention the 40 year age difference. Things don’t get any better when Melodie’s NRA-loving father, John (Ed Begley Jr.) shows up.
Though I think this is Allen’s best comedy in years, one minor flaw keeps it from being a great film. A side story involving Marietta experiencing a sexual awakening with two of Boris’ acquaintances never goes anywhere. It doesn’t add much to the story and seems to be inserted in points where the film should just stay focused on Boris and Melodie.
But that’s my only complaint of this otherwise highly enjoyable Woody Allen effort. In addition to the brilliant Larry David, the luminous Evan Rachel Wood (one of my favorite actresses) delivers another fantastic performance as Melodie. This is her first try at a mostly comedic role, and her perfected take as a ditzy but lovable southern girl further illustrates her impeccable range.
Whatever Works is quite simply a return to comedic form for one of the best living filmmakers of our time. Though I admire the dramatic films he’s made recently, part of me did miss the comedic side of Woody Allen. Sweet, funny and with a good underlying message, this is one film that dedicated Allen fans cannot afford to miss out on.
A truly fine Blu-ray effort from Sony. Though the film is more in line with Woody’s earlier work in terms of minimalist cinematography (an element that was much more rich in his European-based films), the 1080p transfer makes the absolute most of it, making the NYC setting and environment more authentic than ever. Some slight grain pops in a time or two, but nothing the least bit distracting. Overall, the presentation is most pristine with tremendous colors and a grand level of detail.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read on the package that the sound mix was in DTS HD. Up until now, Woody’s films have come only with a Mono or Stereo track. And even though this is strictly dialogue driven, the sound mix does deliver some nice juice with its handling of classical music bits on the soundtrack. Not to mention, every bit of dialogue is heard wonderfully in the lossless audio. In short, it’s pretty much the best sounding presentation you’ll ever hear for a Woody Allen film.
Included is a Theatrical Trailer, as well as bonus preview for An Education.
Whether you’re a fan of Woody Allen or Larry David, or hopefully both, Whatever Works is definitely a must see. It follows Woody’s great tradition of well written comedy with a cynical point of view. And when that point of view belongs to someone like Larry David, you know the laughs are going to be in large doses.