WHATEVER WORKS ****

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WOODY ALLEN is on a roll.

He will go down in history as one of the most accomplished auteurs of the 20th century. So it really should come as no surprise that, even in his seventies, his work is as fresh, provocative and wildly funny as it’s ever been.

Many directors have a period when they’re in peak form…and then slowly fade from view. But Woody just keeps going, creating good to great pictures effortlessly and easily. He’s still amazingly prolific and shows no signs of slowing down.

He seems to be in the midst of another golden period, which is something that all cinephiles should be immensely grateful for.

WHATEVER WORKS is not only further proof of Woody’s majestic genius, but it makes you wonder what superlative gems he’ll delight us with in the future.

BORIS YELLNIKOFF (LARRY DAVID) is more than a curmudgeonly male of advanced intellect in his sixties.

He’s a full blown misanthropist.

To him, there is no point to living. Existence is the biggest bleakest joke there ever was. People are stupid incompetent fools with atrocious grammar and no functioning brain cells.

You can never get anything that you want. If by some strange twist of fate you actually do, so what? Something (or somebody) will come along and ruin it eventually anyway.

To get himself through this irredeemable black hole, Boris has come up with his own personal philosophy: Whatever works.

By that he means, take any measure of happiness, pleasure or grace that you’re given and enjoy it to the fullest. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, grab it and don’t let go. It doesn’t matter if no one else understands or if it makes no sense to them.

Run with the fleeting moments and make a symphony out of them. You never know if they’ll pass your way again.

Boris also has a hilarious habit of breaking the fourth wall. He doesn’t mind addressing us as the audience. He knows we’re out there. As far as he’s concerned, we paid too much money to watch.

“Look, this is not the feel good movie of the year. If that’s what you’re looking for, leave. If you’re one of these idiots that wants to feel good, go out and get yourself a foot massage.”

Boris was a brilliant scientist who was considered for the Nobel prize. He had the classically envied New Yorker’s life: money to burn and an elegant wife with her own successful career.

Boris is difficult to live with. He and Jessica are admirably suited to each other. On paper, they were practically a perfect pair. But he has panic attacks and suffers from depression.

As time wears on, he becomes increasingly bitter and cynical. They decide that, despite their strong feelings for each other, it’s time to end the marriage.

Boris responds to this by jumping out a window and attempting suicide.

(Yes, this is a comedy…)

As soon as he recovers, Boris begins all over again. He immerses himself in a more bohemian way of life. He has no desire for female companionship of any kind. Boris is determined to remain alone until he dies.

Somewhat ironically at this point, a spunky, magnetically attractive 21 year old southern blonde with the improbable name of MELODY ST. ANN CELESTINE (EVAN RACHEL WOOD) sashays into Boris’ closed off world.

She finds herself on the street with nowhere to stay. Alone and friendless, she asks him if he might offer her something to eat.

Boris insults her harshly. According to him, she has no business being in New York. She’s a cracker. Besides, if she thought that she was any kind of a looker because she’d won a few beauty pageants in Mississippi, he can assure her that the competition in the big city is at a ridiculously high level.

Here, she’s nothing but a 3. (Melody is so far from a 3 it’s ludicrous.)

Boris doesn’t even want to converse with her. But she won’t leave him alone. She keeps talking relentlessly. He finally decides to give her some food in the hope that she’ll quiet down and be on her way.

But Melody is nervous on her own. She wonders if she could possibly spend the night. Though much less than sympathetic, even Boris has to admit that New York can be a rough place – especially after dark. So he reluctantly tells her that she can stay.

But tomorrow she’ll have to go and sponge off someone else. And no, she can’t watch TV. If he catches her looking at it, she’ll be out the door in five seconds flat.

Melody ends up remaining indefinitely.

Boris is initially contemptuous of Melody’s small town ways and utter naivete. When he’s nasty or impatient with her, Melody just laughs it off or pretends not to understand what he’s saying. She’s a caring person, big hearted and forgiving.

Boris discovers she’s rather useful around the place. But that doesn’t stop him from suggesting that she find a job eventually and move out.

Slowly and very gradually, Boris begins to soften under Melody’s sunshiny presence. He doesn’t even understand how much he’s come to depend on her. Melody finds a job as a dog walker. She’s actually much smarter than Boris first realized and far more resourceful.

After months of staying at Boris’, Melody meets a young man who asks her out on a date. Boris feels threatened and is incredibly disapproving. He is rather upset when Melody’s date mistakes him for her father. He’s even less impressed when the younger man corrects himself and refers to him as her grandfather.

But Melody is bored on her date. She spends the entire time missing Boris. With her out of the house being entertained by another man, Boris begins to realize how much Melody does mean to him.

Melody has become greatly influenced by Boris’ opinions and philosophies. She has begun to refer to people as ingrates and morons. She understands that life has no meaning. Boris no longer considers her a 3. She might be an 8…or even more.

Boris asks Melody to marry him. Thrilled to bits, she accepts immediately.

Their union is surprisingly solid and unstrained. Melody enjoys taking care of Boris. She makes sure that his health is fine. She opens him up sexually. Boris is kinder and gentler to Melody. He actively tries to make it work.

They are as happy as two people can possibly be. But not for long…

Melody’s good looking meddling mother MARIETTA (PATRICIA CLARKSON) ends up on their doorstep. She has nowhere to go. Her husband has abandoned her for her best friend.

Her life is over.

Not having been informed of Melody’s marriage, Marietta assumes that she’s wed a struggling young rock star. When she meets Boris, she can not believe that her precious little girl is actually married to this horrible old man.

She takes an instant dislike to Boris. It makes no difference to her that Melody is completely content. Boris is not good enough and he is clearly not the type of husband that she had envisioned for her.

From that point on, she is on a mission to find someone that will sweep Melody off her feet and give her the life that she truly deserves.

That’s easily managed. Marietta decides that she loves New York. She also missed Melody too much to be separated from her again. She resolves to stay.

At a restaurant in Manhattan, an incredibly hot young English actor named RANDY LEE JAMES (HENRY CAVILL) notices Melody and falls madly in love with her.

Marietta instinctively feels that this is the one. She tells Randy all about Melody (including her marriage – which she considers a mere inconvenience) and gives him her blessing.

Randy pursues Melody nonstop. Her mother’s permission galvanizes him.

But Melody is secure in her relationship. She doesn’t believe in affairs. She loves Boris. Melody can’t deny that she finds Randy attractive. But she could never do anything to hurt her husband.

In the middle of all this, Melody’s father John comes up looking for Marietta. His affair with her best friend has hit the skids. He wants her back.

But Marietta is not only greatly fulfilled with her new lifestyle, she has absolutely no interest in being John’s wife any more.

John will not give up.

Boris is left in the centre of this overwhelmingly amorous activity – bewitched, bothered and bewildered on all sides.

WHATEVER WORKS possesses a tight hilarious screenplay where the laughs come thick and fast.

LARRY DAVID is absolutely brilliant. He’s pitch perfect and he never makes a false move.

EVAN RACHEL WOOD is a capable young actor of enormous talent. She does finely nuanced, risky work that walks the proverbial high wire. After establishing herself as a silly girl who doesn’t comprehend concepts like quantum physics or anything remotely complex, it was mindblowing to watch her pronounce words of many syllables with astonishing ease and explain her complicated existential theories.

The other performers are all fine. But Mr. David and Ms. Wood are definitely award worthy. They play off each other magnificently.

This is top tier WOODY ALLEN.

It’s the complete inverse of last year’s wondrously sensual VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, which was a sweet, light summer amusement that slowly descended into melancholy darkness. WHATEVER WORKS seems like it’s going to be gloomy and pessimistic – largely due to its miserable protagonist.

But it’s just the sunniest, loveliest, most life affirming, utterly romantic WOODY since HANNAH & HER SISTERS.

So Boris is actually wrong. It’s not only the feel good movie of the year, it’s one of the best films of 2009.

And on a warm summer night, you couldn’t possibly do any better than that…

6 Responses to “WHATEVER WORKS ****”

  1. Miranda…

    What a lovely post and such a delightful summary of this equally delightful film.

    I had some minor quibbles with it (I’m a big Larry David fan, but didn’t feel his performance always worked), but overall, I had a great time. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

    WHATEVER WORKS hasn’t been getting great reviews everywhere, so I’m glad to see you enjoyed it even more than I did.

  2. Patty, thank you from the bottom of my wild Irish heart.

    Your wondrous compliment resonates with me on a variety of levels – as a friend, as someone else that writes and somebody that also adores WOODY ALLEN. So I’m immensely grateful.

    Actually, you could have knocked me down with a feather. I did not expect you to reply to this particular post, although I’m really, really glad you did.

    I was up looking at DOODAD KIND OF TOWN very early this morning and saw that you had reviewed WHATEVER WORKS. (As well as TETRO.) Much as I enjoyed your beautifully assembled critique (AS ALWAYS), I read it and thought, Oh dear. She did like it to a degree. But much less than I did.

    So I’m thrilled that you’re here commenting on this. I wasn’t sure that that would happen.

    But I think it’s immeasurably cool that you’re going to see it again. I am too. I think there is the possiblity – however slight – that you may be left with a more positive impression the second time around.

    I’ll go into detail on a few specific points…

    I’m not sure what’s happening for WOODY in terms of audience. But, because I started my active cinema going in the 90s, I’ve become very used to being one of a handful of people in the theatre to see his new films on opening night. If you count the people that I arrived with, then we’re talking 50 patrons or less the majority of the time. Once in a while there might be more. But then definitely less than a hundred.

    But at some point in this century (I think around the time Match Point was released) the crowds have started to grow exponentially.

    (CASSANDRA’S DREAM doesn’t count. I live in a thriving cosmopolitan city of 2.5 million. Not exactly a backwater. CD wasn’t released here until last April – a good year after it had shown up in most North American markets.

    I mean…release schedules are so screwy now that we get the odd art house film BEFORE Los Angeles and New York. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

    And yeah, I do know how you feel about CD. Hah hah. Just trying to make a point. That’s all.)

    So we saw WW at the fiveplex arthouse on the west side Friday night, where it will be playing exclusively until Thursday. Then it goes considerably wider.

    The auditoriums are rather small except for the slightly larger theatre that has a balcony. WW was not in that one, however. But it was packed to the rafters. There was endless appreciative laughter throughout.

    Then, at the conclusion, several dozen of us sat through the end credits and applauded wildly.

    This was my honest reaction…

    I definitely enjoyed it and thought it was quite well done. I was falling under its spell. Slowly but surely.

    That damn song kept playing (what the hell is the name of it anyway???) and it reminded me so much of HANNAH…and to me HANNAH is WOODY at his most marvelously compelling. His ideas about romance, relationships and family in that film are deeply meaningful to me.

    But it was the last half hour that really got to me.

    ************SPOILERS**************

    I always knew that MELODY would leave BORIS. From a standpoint of common sense, it would be inevitable. He’s 40 years older and they have very different temperaments. But I don’t see anything wrong with them getting married. She was 21 and knew precisely what she was doing. No one coerced her into that decision.

    You can tell that that relationship was never intended to be permanent on a romantic level. But you could understand after everything evened out that they could be very good friends. I think that that would be the ideal partnership for them anyway.

    Once MELODY meets RANDY, you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    But the way it all shook out with MELODY’S parents and BORIS’ situation was so unexpected. At least to me. I loved the fact that it all seemed so intoxicatingly romantic…and everyone’s circumstances were completely out of left field.

    There were a couple of moments that were just killer. One was when BORIS was describing his first meeting with Jessica to MELODY. When he talks about her low cut dress, outwardly he’s being a typical guy. But you can feel the longing underneath his words…and that wistfulness is not a bit sexual.

    Then there’s the scene where MELODY tells him that she’s leaving. You see this miserable old man who uses his cantankerousness as a defence mechanism slowly start to deflate. It’s like all of the air has completely left the tire.

    Of course he’s not a complete jackass. If he were, he would never have given MELODY food and shelter. Much less allowed her to stay for weeks on end and not pay any rent.

    He begins to insult her like he did when they first met. But his words have no resonance and his voice is just above a whisper. A look of deep hurt transforms his face. I don’t think that he was really surprised. It’s just that he didn’t expect it at that particular point.

    It mostly goes over MELODY’S head. She’s a little sad. But she’s ecstatic to have found a new love and she knows that, despite his griping, that BORIS will be just fine without her.

    For all of her apparent naivete, MELODY is a very wise young woman.

    *************END SPOILERS*************

    So I walked out of there feeling as lighthearted and serene as I ever have when leaving a cinema.

    This is one of the reasons I adore my beloved WOODY. When he gets to you, he engages your emotions and makes you experience life in a whole new way.

    Anything that is that powerful in a positive sense is definitely worth something.

    Thanks for commenting on this post, Patty. I feel tremendously blessed to have you here at CP.

    I’m deliriously happy that you enjoyed your staycation.

  3. Miranda…

    Wow, Miranda. Some excellent points there.

    You only increase my desire to see it again. I can tell how much love this movie by the detailed analysis you bring to it…and your enthusiasm is infectious.

    A few days after seeing WW, I’m realizing I may have liked it even more that I realized. What makes it a cut above some other recent Allen films is that the May/December romance has absoutely no ick factor because

    WARNING – SOME MINOR SPOILERS!

    1) It’s remarkably chaste – not even so much as an on screen kiss.

    2) Woody plays the age difference and unsuitability of the partners for laughs (as is obvious from the way Melody’s date mistakes Boris first for her father, then her grandfather).

    This is no MANHATTAN.

    Woody is pretty clear eyed about just how far the relationship can go.

  4. Patty, you’re the living end. This is why you’re one of my all time favourite people – on the net or off.

    You are so unfailingly kind, generous and sincere. That’s exceptionally rare these days.

    You’re my Chicago angel, my darling girl. You have no idea how much your compliments mean to me.

    You know, I never even thought of that. I don’t think you ever see BORIS and MELODY touch at all, do you? I mean, they talk about sex at the beginning when they’re friends. She told him about sleeping with that guy. It was clear from what she said that she didn’t have an incredible amount of experience for a 21 year old of this particular era.

    But she definitely was a sensual girl. She was physically inclined and there was an actual level of interest. He made it VERY obvious to her that he wanted to be left alone. He wasn’t interested in romance, relationships or sex of any kind with ANY WOMAN. Most especially with her.

    And then, after gradually working off his rough edges and getting used to her over a period of time, she spent that one evening with that young guy and BORIS began to realize what he was missing.

    Then after they marry he mentions something about sex very casually and they appear to be happy and connected. Clearly something was going on.

    But I don’t think I ever saw any kind of physical contact between them…and that didn’t even occur to me until now.

    Yeah, your second point has a lot of validity as well. Though their feelings for each other are real (solid enough to make a commitment as big as marriage), at the same time you aren’t expected to take it completely seriously either.

    Interesting that you should mention MANHATTAN, Patty.

    I have a big confession to make.

    *deep breath*

    When I saw MANHATTAN for the first time in the cinema (I had seen bits and pieces – but never the film in its entirety) I was 18. That was back in the 90s.

    Seems hilarious now. But I hated it.

    I might add that I was a very sophisticated old for my years 18 year old. Very, very atypical. I understood that it was satire. But I thought that it was ridiculous.

    I LOVED some of the performances. (MERYL and DIANE in particular.) I found the screenplay amusing to a point. I thought the cinematography was some of the most luminously striking I’d ever seen.

    But after the opening montage set to RHAPSODY IN BLUE, I felt totally let down. It seemed very empty and meaningless to me. Shallow New Yorkers with too much money. Pseudo intellectuals that had to invent problems and blow thousands of dollars on analysis when they were all attractive intelligent people (BLOODY GORGEOUS in MERYL’S case) living privileged lives in one of the most beautiful cultured cities in the world.

    I am not and never will be insensitive. But I just couldn’t understand (satirical point or not) why all these people were so miserable.

    So I felt this way for a few years. But I noticed that every time that MANHATTAN was on TV I would watch it. Regardless of the hour or what I should have actually been doing. Then, after a few viewings over time, I was ready to let go of my expectations of it and accept it for what it was.

    Not what I wanted it to be.

    That’s when I began to fall madly in love with it. Now it’s TOP 5 WOODY (and I’ve seen them ALL). I guess it always will be.

    Getting back to the May/December thing…

    I’m very black and white. It took me a long time (and a lot of hard knocks) to realize that life is GENERALLY more shades of gray than solid colours. I’m no moralist (I could never be – my life’s been too uh…interesting), but I have stark ideas about right and wrong.

    Personally, I think that May/December pairings are rather hot. Doesn’t matter if it’s younger man/older woman or the other way around. I don’t give a god damn if decades separate these people. They can swing from the chandeliers for all I care.

    BUT THEY HAVE TO BE ADULTS.

    I don’t ever like to think that someone young and vulnerable has been coerced or taken advantage of.

    I don’t believe that kids should be having sex before they’re 16. WITH ANYONE. PERIOD.

    Though teenagers 18 and up can legally date whomever they want, I strongly disapprove of adolescent individuals having sexual or romantic liaisons with people over 30. Anyone over 30 that would want to date a teenager clearly has something wrong with them. The power imbalance is too big. That’s pretty scuzzy.

    At 21, people may be young. But they’re adults and can make their own choices by then…as well as their own mistakes.

    I wasn’t alive in 1979. But I’m sure the WOODY/MARIEL HEMINGWAY pairing must have raised more than a few eyebrows. If that wasn’t revolutionary, I’m sure cinema goers weren’t used to seeing 42 year old men involved with 17 year old girls.

    Yet WOODY walks that fine line very delicately and skillfully. TRACY turns 18 during the course of the movie. She says that, at 17, he was her fifth lover.

    At the time, I’m sure some audience members were appalled. Many probably found it hilarious. Likely there were quite a few that didn’t believe her.

    But I suppose the point was that she wasn’t a virgin and this bad older man didn’t seduce her out of her innocence.

    There have always been wild girls that grew up extraordinarily early. I’d venture a guess that even though girls like that have always existed (for various reasons) there were a hell of a lot fewer of them way back in 79 than there are now. MARIEL didn’t seem like the va va voom LOLITA type. She was lovely. But rather quiet and serious.

    TRACY was devastated when IKE broke up with her. Hardly the live fast die young kind of chick. So she was really cast against type.

    But that’s another point. IKE feels that he drifted into this relationship with no thought and at 42 he shouldn’t be having an affair with a 17 year old. So that is to the character’s credit.

    Then comes the capper. He realizes how completely wrong he is for DIANE’S character MARY when she makes it clear that she’s going to go back to MICHAEL MURPHY in spite of all the complications involved. Like his marriage, for instance. MARY is self involved, neurotic and likes a little too much drama. It won’t end even when that marriage has hit the skids. MARY will always crave more.

    He begins to understand how significant TRACY was to him and how he left her simply because he thought that their relationship was inappropriate and that she was too young for him.

    ALL TECHNICALLY TRUE.

    So he finds her just in the nick of time…and newly turned 18. It’s set up so that you understand they will be together. SOME DAY.

    But then even though he knew that she was going to London all this time, he didn’t comprehend the emotional toll that it would take on him. Now that he knows he doesn’t want her to go.

    Typical man. What can I say???

    But she explains that her artistic study is important. She needs to grow, change and learn new things. Not just about her art. But herself.

    He’s jealous as hell. And every time I hear that line, “Don’t be so mature,” I burst out laughing. He knows what growing up over there so far away will mean. She will meet lots of other men. She will go through changes and she will return to the States as a completely different young woman.

    But then she says, “But don’t you want me to have that experience? Not everyone gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.”

    *Cue Gershwin*

    I’m getting chills as I type this now.

    Maybe I’m overly sensitive about MANHATTAN because I first saw it at 18, when I was TRACY’S actual age.

    However…

    At 18, I was living with a 26 year old. That was a little later on that year.

    But that, as they say, is another story…

    All this discussion about MANHATTAN (and thinking of those dramatic sublime fireworks) led me to choose that clip for my FOURTH OF JULY article.

    I dedicate that post to you.

    Thank God you’re here. If it weren’t for you and a handful of special people that I adore, this place would be dullsville.

    You are truly the awesomest, Patty.

  5. glimmer Says:

    the only thing i’ve seen this year that made me feel enthused about going to the movies.

    so it makes sense the lead character was such a curmudgeon/and no sex takes place on screen.

    hell yeah… 😉

    actually this was the feel good movie of the summer for me. despite the happy ending. darn… 😉

    and that was evan rachel wood??? i didn’t recognize her. darn i’m pure like that. 😉

    and not that matters i wasn’t for vicky cb that much. but we’ll always have that red shirt !:)

    and what is with movies having characters from mississippi and milk had them. ha i may have lived in mississippi a bit before i got to rock out town (yep got to make fun of this big town)

    but don’t tell anyone. i don’t want to talk about it. but living in mississippi was better because things actually interested me back then.

    ha i didn’t even have a computer and things were so much more interesting/how unusual.

    now i have a computer and there’s not even music worth downloading.

    viva la geek…

  6. Miranda Wilding Says:

    What can I say???

    Hardy har har. You have very high standards, honey bear. I guess there’s so much out there that just doesn’t float your boat and it’s completely irrelevant to you.

    More power to you, glim babe.

    Well, I’m glad you loved the movie. I’m dying to go again and I finally will this week. I thought it was wonderful. So it’s lovely that you, Craig, Pat (to a degree…) and myself are on the same page regarding WW.

    Yeah, that was EVAN RACHEL WOOD.

    Oh God. JAVIER’S red shirt. Makes me want to pull out my copy of VCB and watch it all over again.

    Not right now though. Duty calls…

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