“Whatever Works” is not just the title of Woody Allen’s 41st film. It is also clearly a philosophy that he has applied toward his own life here on earth. Like many an Allen project in the past, this one makes no apologies for mirroring his own life experiences. As Allen does not appear too often in his own films anymore, there is ordinarily an Allen replacement to speak his voice and to do so with just the right balance of neurosis and paranoia. In this case, another famously awkward neurotic, Larry David (TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), has stepped into Allen’s shoes, as Boris Yellnikof. With a name like that, it is no wonder he is such fatalist. At this stage in his life, he is divorced, living alone and loving hating humanity whenever he can. After he meets a 21-year-old Southern runaway named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), his life becomes unrecognizable.
After a jaunt around Europe, Allen has returned to the city that he is synonymously associated with, New York City. New York now, after some time apart, is no longer romanticized but rather this is the New York that houses all of those who cannot find their place anywhere else. Allen seems to be taking it even one step further to suggest that New York changes those who spend any lengthy period of time there, whether they want to or not. Melodie, who in just her name is inherently more whimsical than Boris, has come to New York to escape her repressive Southern upbringing. Unbeknownst to her though, she has found herself in an even more restricted environment, Boris’s apartment. With no place to go, she weasels her way into Boris’s life and yes, they do eventually become involved romantically. The almost 50-year difference between them is all too easily linked to Allen’s own relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, who is more than 30 years his junior. “Whatever Works” was written in the late 70’s though so the parallels are merely circumstantial and Allen is smart enough to never show the pair in any overtly romantic expression. Their relationship is more symbolic than romantic anyway.
In last year’s triumph, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, Allen had a noticeably more relaxed approach to filmmaking and he brought that back with him from what seemed like a very good vacation. He experiments with breaking the fourth wall as Boris randomly addresses the audience about the story, or more specifically his take on that story. He is the only one capable of doing so and even his onscreen colleagues seem to think he is losing his mind a little. David is strong enough to make it work though. David plays Boris with his own brand of pessimistic social discomfort rather than trying to recreate the character that Allen made famous. That said, David’s signature character may not be what it is without Allen’s influence to begin with so the nod to history is present regardless. And with Melodie, a character who wants so much to embrace the beauty of life, there to counterbalance, Allen the director takes a decidedly optimistic favouring and exposes pessimism as mistaken insight when it is nothing more than avoidance.
“Whatever Works” will not disappoint Allen fans but Allen detractors will find plenty to pick apart. With an open mind though, anyone can appreciate this humour. It is an advanced version of Allen’s signature wit and structure where he even revisits some of the relationship themes he explored in “Annie Hall”. No one person in a relationship knows what is better for the couple or for themselves and Allen seems finally rested enough to accept that he doesn’t know any better himself. For whatever it’s worth, “Whatever Works”, works.
Review by Joseph Bélanger