Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Whatever Works" Works Beatifully

With over fifty films now to his name, Woody Allen has become as profligate as Shakespeare ever was. Like Shakespeare, Allen comes out with a new work regularly (seemingly whether inspired or not), and will probably not be remembered for his many more lightweight attempts (Hollywood Ending comes to mind). Also like Shakespeare, Allan's work can be broadly divided into tragedies (Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point) and comedies (Annie Hall, Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Celebrity, Proof) which treat the same subjects as the tragedies, only with a comedic rather than tragic outlook (with the one exception being Melinda/Melinda, which is a tragedy and comedy in a single movie).

In Whatever Works - a definitive comedy in the Allen oeuvre - Allen takes his standard existentialist, crank husband from Husband and Wives, Small Time Crooks, Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan, etc., and this time distills the character into a pure representation of existential dread in the form of the totally misanthropic and unlikeable Larry David (playing a cantankerous professor and self-professed geniuous of quantum mechanics, Boris Yelllnikoff, who was "nearly nominated" for a Nobel prize).

The story is wrapped in a story (the movie opens with Yellnikoff and his buddies chatting outside a Manhattan bakery, where they address the camera to tell Tellnikoff's story). One day Boris realizes that his beautiful Upper East Side apartment and intelligent Upper East Side wife are completely meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and decides to throw himself out the window. His suicide is foiled by an awning, and he ends up transporting his miserable existence to a basement apartment apparently in some fictional remaining "untrendy" district of Manhattan somewhere (though the '70's and '80's Woody Allen seemed synonymous to New York, but ever since the movie Celebrity in 1998 - a movie in which Woody Allen essentially confessed that his life bore no relationship to ordinary mortals who might inhabit the city - Allen's Manhattan has seemed increasingly disconnected from the city I know, even as he clearly still knows certain key details intimately: the way an alien who's made a career studying this elusive isle might see it).

What happens next is essentially a sketch of the Woody Allen/Soon Yi Previn story that has permeated most of the romantic story lines in Allen's movies since his marriage in '97: an extremely young (in this case Southern) ingenue, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played by Evan Rachel Wood) falls into Boris's lap, and eventually the girl realizes that she loves the smart but crazy old coot and woos the insufferable Boris into marrying her. Of course, Allen has a way of complicating such relationships with other minor characters - in this case, Melodie's holy-rolling mother (Patricia Clarkson) and father (Ed Begley Jr.), who individually come to New York seeking out their daughter only to find their religious Southern rigidities swept away by the magic that is this city of dreams.

As I said, the story is a mere sketch - Allen at this point merely needs to signal the character types and quickly gets to making over his Southern caricatures into fully blossomed New Yorkers, replete with multiple sex partners, art installations, and brand new neuroses. But on this sketch Allen hangs some of his best one-liners and insights in a decade, and the movie turns out to be a real pleasure.

In a way, it's as if Allen spent the Bush years oversees in England, and now that Obama's in office, he's decided it's safe to come back to New York: but in picking up the New York Times, has found himself depressed and in despair at the stupidity and mindlessness that has become our national politics (Boris introduces his theory of existentialism by basically explaining that anyone who simply reads the New York Times every day can't help but conclude that human beings are miserable fools and the world is meaningless.)

But Boris guides us - his audience - through the transformation of the mindless drones who come to intersect his life into passable human beings, providing wonderfully poised insight ("she was like one of those white, Mormon, perfectly poised young men who suddenly grab a riffle one day and start shooting everyone in sight from a tower...only with sex.") along with his brilliant comic touches ("Why don't you listen to Beethoven, it's like fate knocking." Followed by a knock at the door in time with the music, to introduce us to Melodie's mother.)

He also seems to have finally caught on to a bit of the zeitgeist of the times again, lampooning both the prevailing pomposity of right-wing sexual rigidity and the cantankerous pessimism of the besieged intelligentsia.

As good as it is, however, this isn't a genius movie like Annie Hall or Bullets Over Broadway. The filmmaking seems rushed - Allen should have rehearsed his actors more, and many of the scenes needed a second or third take. And in a way, the distilled existentialism we get in the end is really a bit sophomoric, compared with his greater works. Allen seems to be the only 70-year-old existentialist writing movies today, when everyone else has moved on to either pure nihilism (i.e., the Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez school), or traditional Aristotelian tragedy and conveyed meaning (cum Michael Mann, David Fincher, or Ron Howard). That gives this movie a kind of quaint feel, like a French New Wave Cinema piece for the Obama era - which seems to be the kind of smaller gesture Allen has been going for in his movies lately.

That he's decided to minimize his ambitions, however, doesn't mean that Allen doesn't have the writing/directing chops to still give us a minor classic, like he does here. The one issue that hangs over the movie, though, is the ending - which never ties us back to the opening timeline and thus leaves us hanging on an essential question: is the happiness and acceptance that Boris finds at the end an attitude that he realizes after his suicidal despair at the beginning, or just a prelude to his eventual return to the suicidal despair of the introduction? Allen's existential answer seems to be that it doesn't matter, since every feeling is temporary anyway.

That's a bit sloppy, but hey - whatever works.

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