Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Whatever Works

The familiar plot in Woody Allen’s 2009 film Whatever Works centers on an old man who becomes involved with a much younger woman. A relationship develops, they marry, and after a year she meets someone else. Allen’s interest in revolving, evolving personal relationships rolls on. In a way the device is similar to what we find in such plays by Shakespeare as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Measure for Measure—though in those plays waning and waxing passions intertwine with mistaken and concealed identities. Allen acknowledged the connection in his 1982 film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (a delightful and underrated film).

Whatever Works might have worked better had it been an animated film. The characters seem broadly, hastily drawn, as if they are caricatures, cartoon parodies of more three-dimensional individuals. As it is, this real-life film is amusing enough, not one of Allen’s best efforts, but an entertaining one nonetheless.

Boris Yellnikoff is an apparently retired physics professor from Columbia University. He is quick to profess his own stellar brilliance and to denounce the moronic ineptitude of the rest of the human race. His great claim to fame is that he was “almost nominated” for the Nobel Prize for his work in string theory. His first marriage, to a woman almost as brilliant as he, ended when he suffered what appeared to be a breakdown. A suicide attempt failed when he jumped from his apartment window and an awning blocked his fall to the sidewalk. He was left somewhat lame as a result. Allen himself could have played Boris, but instead he chose Larry David, the former writer of Seinfeld and star of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is difficult to distinguish from Seinfeld. David plays the part much as Allen would have played it, but with his own flourishes. He is loud and abrasive and relentless in talking about himself and dismissing everyone else. It’s difficult to like him, at least throughout much of the film. He reminded me of the protagonist of Allen’s film Celebrity (1998).

The young woman is from a small Mississippi town. Allen has often used stereotypes for comic effect. The chastely named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) is such a stereotype. She has never been exposed to the world outside Mississippi. A high school dropout, a frequent participant in beauty contests, she blithely explains to David how she once (only once) committed the sin of having sex with an attractive boy at a catfish fry. Melodie has about as much depth as Al Capp’s Daisy Mae Yokum or as Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies. She is wholly provincial, small-minded, uneducated, unenlightened, naïve—just the opposite (or so he would have us think) of Boris.

Boris allows Melodie to stay in his apartment for a few nights. She has run away from Mississippi and her overbearing mother to experience life and adventure in New York. The more time Boris and Melodie spend together, the more impressed by him she becomes. She begins to mimic his speech and his thoughts, and he is flattered. One night, after listening to her express some of his own thoughts about life and existence, he realizes he has found someone he likes to spend time with. They marry. After a time Melodie’s mother from Mississippi, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up at their door. She has been looking for her daughter. She is equally small-town and provincial, but with the added trait of religious mania. She is horrified by the man her daughter has married and immediately sets out to find a suitable replacement.

Woody Allen chooses in this film to take a particular view of the American South through the stereotyped characters of these two women: the South in this film means provincialism, repression, small-mindedness, ignorance, fundamentalism, backwardness, catfish fries. One might argue that this is the view Allen takes of the world in general outside the boundaries of New York City.

Once these Mississippi women encounter the sophisticated environs of New York, they open up to life’s possibilities. Marietta discovers her talents as a photographer, has a love affair with two men (she lives in the same apartment and sleeps in the same bed with both of them at the same time). Melodie falls in love with an actor. For Woody Allen these are the patterns of human relationships.

Much of this film comes across like a stage play. It takes place on sets--the apartment of Boris and Marietta, a museum, a boat. The effect is static and confining, just as the shallow characterizations are confining. One can imagine the story working better as a play than it does as a film. In Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979—one of Allen’s best films) Allen uses New York City as a spectacular setting for his characters and their affairs. We know that Whatever Works is set in New York City, but for the most part we see little of the city and feel less of its life. The tight focus is on Boris, Melodie, Marietta.

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