December Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 15 years ago

Die-hard fans may be reluctant to admit it, but the biggest problem with Woody Allen’s movies in his declining years is Woody Allen himself. His characters no longer have any nuance to them, his scripts are bitter rather than funny and now that he has returned to New York after many years in Europe, he seems to have even lost his affinity to the city.

The story of a sixty-something misanthrope who marries, yet never seems to love, a teenage girl,Whatever Works is an ode to crankiness and New York City. But it features a lazy script that doesn’t bother with developing characters and, even worse, it has Allen at his most condescending. Redemption, he believes, can only be found in his hometown and the rest of America is a cultural wasteland that breeds repression and intolerance.

Woody Allen has been able to bring together, as he was always does, a fine ensemble. The movie is anchored by Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. David is a grouchy scientist who believes he came very close to being nominated for a Nobel Prize and is now clinging to that memory. He earns his living teaching chess to children — and if they make a bad move he sees nothing wrong in smashing a chess board on their heads. David and Allen are comedic cousins — they specialise in playing grumpy men with a superiority complex. But where Allen brings a softer touch to his acting, making you like him no matter how obnoxious he may be, David does not try to temper his anti-social, hard-edged character.

Evan Rachel Wood plays a runaway Southerner who has come to make it big in NYC. She moves in with and eventually marries David. Where other directors would have had her reform David, Allen just has them fight and argue throughout. Individual scenes of their dysfunctional relationship are throughly entertaining, mainly because of the brilliant acting of the leads, but how they got, and stayed, married is inexplicable.

The standout performances are by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. as Wood’s conservative, God-fearing parents who discover the temptations of the city. It’s a shame then that their characters are so clichéd. Clarkson, who initially judges the city evil, eventually comes around and finds happiness as an erotic artist and discovers a taste for threesomes while Begley realises that he has been so repressed because he never gave in to his homosexual tendencies. Despite their ridiculous storylines, both actors deliver their performances with brio and humour.

Whatever Works’ biggest weakness is its disjointed plot. Larry David’s scenery-chewing acting dominates the first half of the movie, but then he is all but forgotten as the focus shifts to Wood’s parents and a tireless suitor, played by Henry Cavill, who cares not that she is married. Instead of concentrating on a coherent story, it seems that Allen just threw everything on the screen in the hope that something would work. There are a great many individual scenes to treasure in this movie, but the sum is definitely lesser than its constituent parts.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.