Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is having a panic attack. "It's four in the morning!", yells Boris' future ex-wife Jessica (Carolyn McCormick). "I married you for all the wrong reasons," replies Boris. "We looked so good on paper. But life isn't on paper." The same could be said about Whatever Works. Larry David and Woody Allen should be a match made in neurotic Jewish comedy heaven, and I'm sure the idea of dusting off a decades-old script, written for Zero Mostel way back in the 70's, was also appealing. Sadly, neither of these things pay off: the movie just sits there, mostly inert, as some unexpected cosmic, comic element about David and Allen fails to mesh.
Boris is a genius, having been nominated for a Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics, and he sees the big picture, literally: he breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us, the audience. I'm not sure why. It almost seems lazy, because the device doesn't play much of a part in the movie. At first, it looks like it's being done so that a present-era Boris can tell us about something that happened a year or so ago, but it becomes clear that the entrance of Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) into his life is a current, and not historical development. Melodie and Boris meet outside his apartment, where she's hiding near the garbage cans and looking for food. Boris attempts to shoo Melodie away, but she convinces him to let her inside, and soon, she's staying on his couch while she looks for a job.
Boris has a job already, teaching chess to young children, which mostly involves yelling at both the children and their parents, but a chess-teaching job doesn't seem to interfere with Melodie dragging Boris around the city to look at landmarks. While they sightsee, Boris complains about the world, and in response, Melodie tells him about her hometown and its illustrious residents, one of whom caught the biggest fish in the county. "I wondered who caught that fish," replies Boris. Boris and Melodie's relationship is nice, and although the audience groaned when they found out Melodie and Boris had decided to get married, I didn't mind.
Things get complicated, however, when Melodie's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) show up looking for her. Their reactions to New York, their daughter's new life and eventually each other are somewhat absurd, but they're supposed to be prime examples of why Boris is smarter than everyone, because he saw it all coming. It sorta works, in fits and starts, but on the whole, these characters feel a little like they dropped in out of different movie universes than Boris and Melodie; I have a hard time imagining what their normal family life had looked like before Melodie decided to run away. There's also potential infidelity for Melodie in the form of a guy named Randy James (Henry Cavill). Randy makes the least impression of all: he doesn't seem to have much of a personality, and there's no chemistry between Cavill and Wood. Randy's more of a plot device than a character.
In a panel interview for Whatever Works, some people asked Allen and David about whether Boris was an Allen surrogate character, the role Woody would have played. Woody claimed, as others have observed, that Boris is meaner than the usual Allen character. It's true to an extent -- Boris does spend almost every moment making fun of Melodie's limited knowledge of the world -- but you don't sense any real cruelty or hatred in the way Larry David plays it, and the always-positive Melodie never reacts negatively to any of Boris' criticisms, taking the potential edge off a really unlikable character. In fact, Boris is a more interesting character when he's likable: near the end of the movie, talking to a hospitalized woman named Helena (Jessica Hecht), David's natural charisma is evident.
Some people will probably see Whatever Works and simply claim Woody's heart isn't in it anymore. I don't think I believe that; I think Woody's still got some spark left (being a lone defender of some of his recent comic output), but it's still true that it's hard to watch the film and feel like the story was dying to be told; it seems more like Woody found a screenplay that was pretty much already written, figured out a hook in Larry David, and threw it together over a weekend. The attitude and air of the result certainly fits in with the movie's title concept, but for that level of engagement, Woody might as well have cut the name in half: Whatever.
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