For comedy purists, and particularly aficionados of Jewish humour, there’s something quite delicious about the idea a Woody Allen and Larry David smack down. The director of Annie Hall and Manhattan meets the creator/star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s got to be hilarious, right? Well, not quite. The title of Whatever Works almost sounds like Allen’s laissez faire approach to scripting these days, rather than a theory David’s lead character proposes about relationships.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a misanthropic nuclear physicist and self-proclaimed ‘genius’ who lives alone in New York’s Chinatown after splitting from his rich wife. Spending his days teaching chess to children (or ‘inchworms’ as he calls them), his life is suddenly changed when a naïve runaway waif from the Deep South named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) turns up on his doorstep. Against his better judgement, he takes her in, just for one night. One month later, she’s still there – and gradually falling for Boris’ charms (or lack of them).
The first half of the film, with David simply let off the leash to rail against the humanity, is by far the funnier. Evan Rachel Wood, the Eliza Doolittle to David’s Henry Higgins, is the perfect foil, adding just the right amount of sugar to temper Boris’ bitterness. Where the film begins to fall apart, however, is after Allen asks us to take a huge narrative leap of faith when Boris eventually succumbs to Melody and marries her, despite the cavernous difference in age, intellect and outlook on life.
At this point we’re introduced to Melody’s mother (Patricia Clarkson), who has split from her unfaithful husband (Ed Begley Jr) and arrives in the city to find herself. Naturally, she hates Boris but as Allen begins to switch his attentions to her, Whatever Works begins to lose its focus. Given David, who previously appeared in bit parts in Allen’s segment of New York Stories and Radio Days, is the perfect vessel for Allen’s philosophical ramblings, this feels like a criminal waste. It’s not that Whatever Works is bad. It just the second half never delivers on a very promising opening.
Selected release from Fri 25 Jun.