Thursday, July 9, 2009

Whatever Works (Rhoades)

Woody Allen Tries“Whatever Works”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
You’d think it would be a movie pairing made in Hollywood heaven – those famous comedic misanthropes, filmmaker Woody Allen and TV guru Larry David. Being quintessential grumpy old men, Allen and David have each made a career out of celebrating Losers.

Look at Woody’s humorous persona, a nebbish who spends his life on a psychoanalyst’s couch questioning his uneasy relationships. And what bigger loser than his Virgil Starkwell in “Take the Money and Run,” a crook who can’t even spell the note right for a bank robbery (i.e. “gub”).

Even in Allen’s more sophisticated films like “Manhattan,” he gives us a guy who turns loser in the end, letting love pass him by.

And what about Larry David? His self-parody on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” gives us a curmudgeon we can barely bare to watch, an advanced sufferer of Foot In Mouth Disease.

However, David’s pièce de résistance of misanthropy was “Seinfeld,” one of the most celebrated sitcoms ever to flicker on American television sets. We all enjoyed the misadventures of these lovable pre-“Friends” friends.

But wait! When you stop to examine it more closely, Jerry’s kids were a bunch of losers. Kramer never held a job. George couldn’t find work. Elaine was always on the verge of being fired. And Jerry was a narcissist suffering from a Peter Pan complex, always eating cereal and talking about Superman.

Yet, we have to admit, Allen and David made losers funny. And in showing us their characters’ foibles, they held up a mirror to our own shortcomings. Sort of like undergoing surrogate psychoanalysis. Now we have “Whatever Works” – a Woody Allen film starring Larry David – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The title itself should give you a hint of the duo’s laissez-faire attitude toward success. Larry David (as a Woody Allen stand-in, now that Allen’s too old to star in his own movies) is cast as a former physicist who specialized in Quantum Theory. No, I’m not kidding … but perhaps Woody is. He meets up with a waif from Alabama in the typical Woody Allen older man - younger woman scenario. Turns out, the girl (Evan Rachel Wood) is as dumb as the washed-up physicist is smart. Her Bible-thumping parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) follow her to New York City, but thanks to their daughter’s new mentor and the magic of Manhattan they are converted to happy perverts.

In art-imitates-life fashion, Allen’s … I mean, Larry David’s … character marries the girl who is 40 years his junior. All Woody Allen films are fused with a neurotic auteur’s philosophy. In this film it’s that “life is short so he might as well enjoy himself.” Not all that far from Allen’s real-life pronouncement that “the heart wants what the heart wants.”After four films made in Europe, Allen returns to familiar stomping ground, his beloved NYC. It seems like a return from exile. But with “Whatever Works,” he didn’t take any big chances on his homecoming. This is a script dug out of his trunk, written in the 70’s for the late Zero Mostel. So if it seems a little retro, don’t be surprised. Reviews have been mixed. Should we blame it on a mediocre script? Or that Woody’s just running out of steam? Or the obviously tight budget that forced the film to take shortcuts.

When I lived in New York, I used to go listen to Woody Allen play clarinet on Monday nights at Michael’s Pub. He loves music and his films are often infused with it. His earlier “Manhattan” was an ode to Gershwin. But here the music is skimpy, recycling several tunes from earlier films. As you’ll note, I started off this review by calling “Whatever Works” misanthropic. Woody Allen defends himself against this appraisal: “I never think of it as misanthropic even though that sounds funny because that is the source of the humor. But, it seemed to me, that it’s a realistic appraisal of life. Life is quite terrible and you can see by what goes on. So, this is fiction and it can be read as misanthropic and being interpreted that way but I don’t think it is; I think it’s simply realistic.”

Hm, I rest my case.People are always saying they liked Woody Allen better back “when he was funny.” Well, here’s a dusty time capsule for your entertainment. Maybe a little shopworn, but like he says, “Whatever Works.”
[from Solares Hill]

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