Saturday 21 April 2018

Movies: Whatever Works * *

(15A, limited release)

Paul Whitington

When I first heard that Woody Allen and Larry David were teaming up to make a film, I must admit, I was intrigued.

What would happen when these two great pillars of New York Jewish comedy collided, one wondered? Not a whole lot, as it turns out, or rather in Allen's case, merely more of the same.

Apparently, Allen originally wrote the screenplay for Whatever Works in the 70s as a vehicle for the late Zero Mostel. And I can see why he chose David as a logical substitute to play the film's histrionically misanthropic central character, Boris Yelnikoff.

Boris is a depressive, a cynic, a hypochondriac and an intellectual snob. He was once a respected and happily married physicist, but his obsession with death and the utter pointlessness of everything eventually put paid to that.

Boris lives alone and ekes a living teaching chess to children and thinks practically everyone in the world is an idiot but himself. He repeatedly tells us this, talking directly to camera, much as Allen did in Annie Hall.

Boris's bleak world view is tested by the arrival on his doorstep of a waif teenager from the Deep South called Melodie St Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood).

Reluctantly, Boris takes her in, and while he makes it plain to Melodie that she's as dumb as a bag of hammers, he begins to grow fond of her.

In Allen films, pretty, young girls fall for bald, grumpy old men like ninepins, and that's exactly what happens here.

Boris and Melodie marry, though interestingly even Allen must have got the jitters about his actors' 40-odd year age difference, because we never see them touch or kiss.

In any case, a certain level of domestic contentment is achieved until Melodie's deeply Christian mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) arrives in Manhattan to save her little girl.

All of this is not without its potential, and Allen's screenplay raises several interesting lines of argument, such as the rather contentious theory that deeply held religious and social convictions are invariably skin-deep and will soon be solved by a visit to that cesspit of sin, the Big Apple.

David brings a bite of aggression to the moany Allen persona, and the Boris character could have been mildly interesting, if he'd been challenged and forced to evolve.

Sadly, however, he isn't, and Allen has clearly rushed through his wordy script with so little care and attention to detail that his beloved New York is only glimpsed in passing, as the film races towards a glib and most unsatisfactory conclusion.

Irish Independent

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