Saturday, October 31, 2009

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) - Whatever Doesn't




After his European sojourns, Woody Allen returns to New York and to his earlier favourite topics: misanthropic Jewish liberal intellectuals and the beautiful, young, pliant girls who fall for them. It's been done in Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah And Her Sisters, heck, even in Bananas - so this should be a return to greatness, right?

Wrong.

And for very basic reasons which have everything to do with screenwriting (though the casting may also be somewhat responsible).

A short synopsis: Boris Yelnikov (Larry David), a misanthropic physicist reduced to teaching kids chess for a living (whilst bullying his charges mercilessly) encounters a Southern waif one evening and allows himself to be convinced to take her in. She's sweet but stupid, and he teaches her his views on life, love, the universe and everything. After a while they get married, and everything is swell, until her mother shows up, having been deserted by her husband. The mother is a Christian fundamentalist who hates Boris, but she quickly becomes seduced by New York when she finds fame as a photographer, and ends up living with two men.
Then the husband shows up, similarly fundamentalist and anti-Boris, but when he discovers how his ex-wife has changed, he ends up bemoaning his fate in a bar where he meets a gay man and admits he's been gay all along too.
Boris' wife, in the meantime, meets an attractive actor who is interested in her, goes to bed with him, and divorces Boris, who tries to commit suicide but lands on a woman who turns out to be his ideal mate, even though she's a psychic (something he as a rational scientist has great aversion to). Bottom line: life is short, so do whatever works to make you happy and find love.

Let's take the flaws of the movie in ascending order of severity.

First, there's expositional, explicitly on the nose dialog. And not a little, either. People are extremely literal and literate in analyzing themselves and each other, and it comes across as fake. To be fair, this has been the case in earlier Woody Allen films as well, but there he was able to sell it better, somehow. If only by using more hesitations and stammering in the delivery of the lines.

Secondly, several characters go through huge arcs - but at an incredible speed. While the mother has some screen time to go from fundamentalist to hedonist, it's still far from convincing. And the father literally changes his entire belief system and sexual orientation in the course of one scene! It's impossible to take this even remotely seriously. Similarly, Boris' wife immediately sleeps with the actor after meeting him, and this one encounter is enough for her to immediately ditch Boris (to be fair, he immediately throws her out upon learning of her infidelity, but she doesn't to anything to change his mind - even though she's been the one who's initiated the entire romance). Because so many characters change so unconvincingly during the film (especially its second act), the audience is no longer engaged with the proceedings. And the plot suffers too, as there is no driving conflict, no extra complications added to the situation - just vignettes to prove the theory 'whatever works'.

But most importantly of all, Whatever Works is sabotaged by its protagonist. Boris Yelnikov has a lot in common with earlier Allen characters - he's neurotic with a morbid fear of death, he's bitingly sarcastic (whatever the film's flaws, it does have a couple of very good one-liners), his marriage has been a disaster, he likes old jazz, classical music, Fred Astaire, and he finds himself involved with a beautiful, loving young woman who eventually deserts him.

However, Boris is different from previous Allen characters (both played by him and other actors) in that he is invulnerable. He's a loud bully, proclaiming his distaste of anyone and everything around him - and he's right. Not only in his own mind, but the story constantly proves him to be right too. In the end, he even proves to the audience (which he addresses throughout the film, and only he can see) that he's a genius because he sees the whole picture (i.e. that he's part of a movie).

In the past, Allen has been quite aggressive too in his comedies, especially towards the objects of his affection, but his own neurotic, cowardly persona softened the blow and made it look like the defense mechanism of a character suffering from an inferiority complex. Now, Boris towers above all those around him, spewing his hate and never being corrected, whether by other characters or fate. He doesn't really change (even when he's in love he's still the same miserable curmudgeon), and he isn't really a character you like to spend much time with. In casting Larry David, whose style of comedy is abrasive and confrontational, Allen has compounded the problem. The part fits David very well - but it amplifies his most obnoxious tendencies. Even in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is often in the wrong (though he never thinks so, obviously).

In this movie, we get to see just how irritating a protagonist can be who is invulnerable. Sure, Boris gets so depressed he attempts suicide after the break-up but once again, that's handled in just one scene - and as a surprise, without any build-up towards that act. He finally comes across as an obnoxious, bossy bully who needs to be taken down a peg or two. And if that's the character who is your window into the story, it's no wonder the film really doesn't work as a whole.

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