The best thing about Woody Allen’s latest movie is its title. It sums up the crochety philosophy of protagonist Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David, obviously standing in for Allen himself), who’s had it up to here with moralists and utopians from Christ to Karl Marx. In a chaotic world full of flawed people, he proclaims, the best we can do is “Whatever works … as long as you don’t hurt anybody.”
If you like the sound of that, you should probably leave the theater after David’s opening monologue (which he delivers straight to the audience) and go grab a copy of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Or stop by Burlington’s Radio Bean, play some chess and have a chat with one of the resident armchair philosophers. Either course will yield more enlightenment — and probably more laughs — than staying to watch the rest of the movie.
Because David’s character isn’t really a pragmatist with a bracingly unromantic view of the world. He’s a megalomaniac and a whiner, the type of person who sees the worst in everyone but himself. And Allen has filled the movie with characters too dim-witted to call him on it.
All this might be forgiven if the film were funny. It’s not, unless your taste in comedy runs to tepid, retro stage farces. Early on, Columbia physics professor Boris quarrels with his rich, beautiful wife and produces this would-be zinger: “Our marriage hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses …. Romantically speaking, you were more of a Venus flytrap!” It’s hard to believe the man who penned this Borscht Belt-level stuff also wrote Annie Hall.
That film captured the neuroses of its time. This one, which Allen actually drafted during the same decade, feels older, and it’s been translated to the 21st-century screen with only desultory updating.
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Boris dumps his wife and job and goes to make his living as a coffee shop’s resident curmudgeon, teaching chess to kids who are all, he helpfully informs their mothers, “morons.” Enter Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a bedraggled beauty queen from the Deep South who lands on Boris’ doorstep lonely and destitute. Fascinated by the limping, grumpy, way older “genius” who insults her at every turn, she falls in love with him.
This part at least makes sense: With a gene pool like Melodie’s, anyone would want to get some smarts into the mix. Bouncing around with her fluffy jailbait ponytails and general cluelessness, Wood’s character might as well have been named Ellie Mae. She knows Boris is brilliant, but she can’t keep straight whether he almost won a Nobel Prize or an Oscar. When her conservative, church-going parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) show up separately to rescue her from the secular humanist hotbed of Manhattan, they turn out to be just as sharp as she.
What follows is a mildly comic, highly implausible set of plot twists. Let’s just say that, if members of the religious right were really as clownish and childlike as they’re depicted here, the culture wars would have ended in a New York minute. In Allen’s fantasy world, New York can transform anyone into a happy, Birkenstock-wearing, gay-friendly boho. If only.
Whatever Works could have worked beautifully as a genuine culture-clash comedy where everyone learns a thing or two. There are some promising scenes where Wood’s character starts to smarten up as, having turned herself into a mini-Boris, she realizes just how joyless his life is. (Rather than making do with whatever works, Boris actually spends his days complaining about whatever doesn’t work, or might not, or shouldn’t.) Instead of giving Melodie an awakening, though, Allen simply gives her a more appropriate love interest (Henry Cavill), and the plot proceeds down its well-worn path.
Along the way, Clarkson gets some laughs. (Her reaction to the story of Boris’ failed suicide is a deadpan mini-masterpiece.) And David’s rants have their moments. But in the end, the film’s core appeal is summed up by a commenter on the New York Times’ website: “I can’t recall the last time I had so much fun without having to beware which foul words would be shouted out next.” If you’ve been waiting for an “adult” comedy sans obscenities and rock music, here you go. But there have to be better alternatives to The Hangover than this one.