Same Old Song 

A Woody Allen movie about a crotchety intellectual? You don't say.

Larry David (left): jackass who wants to be loved

Larry David (left): jackass who wants to be loved

First, an outing: I've never been much of a Woody Allen fan. Not big on his movies, don't want to eat him up with an oh-so-witty-and-adorably-nerdy spoon. He almost ruins intellectual, romantic New York City for me.

So maybe if you disagree in principle, you should treat my borderline dislike of Allen's newest, Whatever Works, with distrust.

Even I don't think it's all bad. Larry David stars as Boris Yellnikoff, a cranky, unlovable schlub and a Nobel-level thinker with suicidal tendencies. Boris is constantly spouting his philosophy on life — humans are a failed species, so do whatever works for you so long as you don't hurt anyone else — to his handful of friends and even occasionally to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, though to a lesser degree than Allen did in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

David is fun to watch. He seems to enjoy rolling with Allen's words in his mouth. It's easy to see Boris as a stand-in for Allen. As such, David is perfectly cast. His voice and demeanor are more New York than New York and his delivery is a raspier, lustier variation on Allen's.

So I can't help but be annoyed as the plot sees Boris become the object of a hot crush from a beautiful, nubile girl who is turned on by his intelligence and crusty sexiness. Gross. In light of Allen's own well-documented personal peccadilloes: really gross.

The May to Boris' December is Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a Mississippi girl homeless on the streets of the big city. Boris takes pity on her and lets her into his home. He peppers this "imbecile child" with his rants, and she eats it up with big eyes, her heart agape at the unparalleled sophistication she's witness to.

The failures of Whatever Works are Allen's. If he has an ear for the Yankee, he can't help but put a little too much South in Melodie's mouth. And if Allen has love for his fellow New Yorkers, he's parsimonious when it comes to his country cousins. (Matters are complicated with the arrival of Melodie's mama, played by Patricia Clarkson, and daddy, played by Ed Begley Jr.)

The actors mostly do right by their characters. David is especially good, though his dialogue starts to sound like an old-fashioned typewriter: talk talk talk talk talk zing!

Boris is having too much fun to convince us that he's really a miserable suicide risk. Of course, his screed of a persona is all an act but once that magical boundary between artist and audience gets sledge-hammered, it's just us adults talking here. Lacking the character's emotional motivation, what the audience gets instead is a self-wounded monologue yelled at us from a jackass who wants to be loved without giving anything real of himself.

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Whatever Works
Rated PG-13 · 92 min. · 2009
Official Site:
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Producer: Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum
Cast: Ed Begley Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Larry David, Conleth Hill, Michael McKean, Evan Rachel Wood, Henry Cavill, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Hecht and Carolyn McCormick

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