“Whatever Works,” Woody Allen’s prodigal return to New York, takes the disconcerting form of a disquisition on quantum physics, love and chance, ranted directly to the camera by terminally misanthropic Larry David. Though stuffed with witty one-liners and wondrously convoluted tirades, this far-fetched, deliberately artificial game of musical chairs — in which mismatched characters encircle, attract and repel each other — feels forced, often losing itself in excess verbiage. Still, the David/Allen hybrid makes for a fascinating beast, of interest to acolytes of both comedians, if a far cry from “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” whose B.O. haul is unlikely to be matched by this June 19 Sony Classics release.
Dusting off a script he wrote more than 30 years ago, Allen casts David as Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant string theorist “almost nominated for the Nobel Prize.” Consumed by the big picture of the universe hurtling toward its own extinction, Boris despises all mankind, apparently angry that people are too stupid to be depressed. Having abandoned his rich wife and uptown apartment by jumping out a window in a failed suicide attempt, a limping Boris survives in a dilapidated apartment near Chinatown, supporting himself by teaching chess to little kids he flagrantly insults (“Inchworm!” “Sub-mental cretin!”) and hanging out with old academic pals (Michael McKean, Conleth Hill), who are amused but unconvinced by his vitriolic spewings.
Into this semi-hermetic existence stumbles Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young blonde pageant queen from the Deep South, sweet as pie and dumb as dirt. While she cooks him crayfish and calms his anxiety attacks with Fred Astaire movies, Boris alternately bemoans Melody’s dimwittedness and regales her eager mind with everything from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to a “Mikado”-like list of petty crimes that should be punishable by death. Much of the pic’s comedy revolves around Melody’s skewed or surprisingly apt regurgitations of his teachings, and Wood handles the evolution of her improbably Daisy Mae-ish character with surprising finesse.
A year into the odd couple’s union, fate comes knocking at the door (to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth) in the form of Melody’s Bible-spouting mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, in typically high-drama mode), who greets the sight of her daughter’s irascible, elderly, gimpy hubby by falling out of frame in a dead faint.
But hedonistic New York proves the making of Marietta — instantly divesting her of her born-again Christian mindset, liberating her starved sexuality and validating her amateur photography. Indeed, the city is big enough to turn around even the most backward misguided soul: When Melody’s gun-fetishizing dad (Ed Begley Jr.) finally arrives, he too sees the light, thus proving the pic’s moral that one must grasp whatever works to bring a bit of joy into a benighted world.
Throughout “Whatever Works,” there are moments of discordance, ghostly echoes of the alter-ego problem Allen has faced for years in the absence of himself as central character.
On the plus side, Allen avoids the creepy ventriloquist effect of a younger actor mouthing his words and intonations by choosing as raucously individualistic a performer as David. Boris, who turns everyday anxieties into comic angst (he periodically wakes up in cold sweats chanting Kurtz’s “the horror … the horror”) reps a distinct variation on Allen’s persona. Boris may be a cooler know-it-all on the surface, but his equilibrium is more easily shaken, as demonstrated by his reaction when Melody drifts toward a Viagra-free relationship with a younger prospect (Henry Cavill).
But by forcing David, a total improviser who rarely delivers scripted lines, to incant impossibly long monologues (his to-the-camera ramblings effectively self-kidded by the visible bewilderment of the other cast members), Allen the director loses sight of what works. The film lacks breathing room — it rushes forward like a stage play with pre-planned exits and entrances, soliloquies and asides. Even the city appears to be a set, with real Chinatown locations looking like isolated backdrops and touristy glimpses of Grant’s Tomb and the Statue of Liberty sardonically inserted.
Kudos to David for having collaborated with the two greatest comedy icons of the generation prior to his: Allen here and Mel Brooks on TV (the entire fourth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” involves David’s fictional assumption of the Bialystock role in Broadway’s “The Producers”). It’s undeniable that David’s rawer comic style jibes more felicitously with Brooks’ unromantic ethos, yet oddly, in keeping with the pic’s celebration of random coincidence, both the Bialystock and Boris parts were originally conceived for Zero Mostel.