Thursday, July 23, 2009

Whatever Works

With a handful of defiant exceptions — Scorsese, Spielberg, Eastwood, Stallone — virtually all major filmmakers from the 1970s have long since either stopped working, died, or, like Francis Ford Coppola, simply become irrelevant. But Woody Allen is the rarest of creatures; a filmmaker who became irrelevant with a nonstop cavalcade of mediocrity in the 90s and early 00 which at times almost played like hollow parodies of his classic works, but somehow clawed his way back into relevancy in the last few years with the impressive Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Congratulations Woody, I formally upgrade you from "irrelevant" to "hit-or-miss."

But after the major hit of Match Point came the major miss of Scoop, and on the tail of the charming Vicky Cristina Barcelona sadly comes the tepid Whatever Works. It's apparently an ancient screenplay from the mid-70s that Woody pulled out, gave a quick polish, and decided was due for filming, and I don't doubt it for a second. It plays like a pale shadow of Annie Hall and Manhattan, having a vaguely similar feel but lacking their depth, pathos, or humor.

Being 70s Allen, the protagonist is of course a neurotic, self-loathing New York Jew with liberal sensibilities, a fixation on death, and low self-esteem outside of his high intellect and elite knowledge of the arts, in this case played by Larry David. He brings a little bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm curmudgeon to the mix, happily shouting at kids and condescending to everyone he meets and claiming he has no secret heart of gold and his story is not a feel-good story (but, of course, he obviously does have a secret heart of gold and his story is a feel-good story). The first fifteen minutes or so, where Larry David just walks around Manhattan and acts superior and curmudgeonly, actually feel like vintage Allen in a beautifully nostalgic way and had me thinking I was in for a good movie. But then Evan Rachel Wood shows up and, oh boy, god damn.

It's not that I have anything against Evan Rachel Wood. She's cute and actually makes the most of what Allen gives her in the script. But man oh man does Allen give her a shit taco. In fact every single female character in this movie with more than a couple lines is depicted as the same mush-brained, flighty dolt with juvenile taste in art, music, and politics and a whorish disposition who can only mature with the help of stronger, smarter, and all-around superior men.

Look, I understand it can be tough for men to write women, but I found this movie's female characters and depiction of gender in general pretty shocking and offensive circa 2009 — especially shocking considering it came from the same writer-director who gave us great characters like Annie Hall and the nuanced and multilayered women of Hannah and Her Sisters. Or, hell, even the girls of Vicky Cristina Barcelona just last summer! I've seen a few sexist movies this year, but Whatever Works takes the cake without a contest.

Anyway, Evan Rachel Wood plays a "submental baton twirler" (Larry David's character's words) from Mississippi who has run away to New York City and falls for Larry David instantaneously, wanting to fuck him and marry him because obviously all that nubile blonde 20-year-olds want to do is mack on elderly Jewish men. For now we'll put aside the cringe-inducing real life implications of a May-December romance in a Woody Allen movie because what more is there to do besides shift uncomfortably in your seat? Soon Evan Rachel Wood's mother shows up, who is also an uncultured dolt, and then her father, who prays constantly and believes New York is sinful. With the arrival of every walking Mississippian stereotype the movie gets more cliché and less funny and Larry David recedes a little more into the background.

In the end I can't recommend Whatever Works, despite liking the main character and the first act. If you want 70s Woody Allen I recommend just busting out an actual 70s Woody Allen DVD. Sure, Manhattan may also have a creepy middle aged man romantically pursuing a teenager, but at least that one is stuffed with gorgeous photography of New York City. Whatever Works is 90% people talking indoors, and if they're female, from Mississippi, or both, saying some of the most cliché and embarrassing shit you can imagine.

2 Stars out of 5

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