“People make life so much worse than it needs to be,” opines Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) in the opening scene of Whatever Works. And Boris should know: He’s the ultimate curmudgeon, relentless in his efforts to hate humanity, flaunt his sense of superiority and insult anyone who crosses his path — from his young chess students to the women in his life.
Whatever Works is the latest opus from Hollywood’s champion of cynicism and neurosis, Woody Allen. The movie, which was just released on DVD, features David as a so-called genius of quantum mechanics who was passed over for a Nobel Prize, suffers from debilitating panic attacks about his own death and leaves his wife after a suicide attempt — all of which is revealed in the film’s first ten minutes. Boris’s life takes a surprising turn, however, when pretty young thing Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) lands on his doorstep, full of Southern charm and mellifluous naivete and child-like adoration for her new roomie (not to mention a suitcase full of knee socks, skimpy tank tops and accessories for pigtails). Through a series of farcical events, Boris eventually learns to accept love and life with the titular belief in Whatever Works.
But don’t get too gushy: David is practically a stand-in for Allen, complete with the interminable complaints and aggravating attitude typical of most of the director’s male characters. As Boris, David takes pride in proclaiming himself an “unlikable” guy, but his layers of simultaneous self-pitying and insufferable hubris go much deeper; They’re practically ripped from the pages of Portnoy’s Complaint, that original tome on the Jewish male condition from Philip Roth. With almost Dave Chapellian vigor, David embodies every stereotype he can, from moaning about ulcers that don’t exist to taking aim at his fellow New Yorkers with derisive epithets like “earthworm,” “inchworm,” and “cretin.”
At first, watching the impressionable Melody learning to parrot Boris’s knee-jerk lexicon is almost worse than watching Boris’s soliloquies. Wood’s Melody is all honey and softness, and it’s sit-com uncomfy watching her play out the inevitable. In fact, everything about Whatever Works is over the top, including Melody’s estranged parents (brilliantly portrayed by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.), who arrive with equally broad, Red-state stereotypes and hyper-dramatic reactions to their daughter’s new life.
But then something surprising happens: As the characters ricochet against each other, trying on new identities and embracing all that New York has to offer — from free love to high art — their humor becomes less like an assault and more like the instructive satire that the film ostensibly set out to be. Even some of Boris’s asides become funnier. Describing how he met his ex-wife, he muses, “She had a high IQ and a low-cut dress,” while Clarkson’s Marietta picks right up on the joke with one-liners about Boris’s Flomax. Much like Boris himself, Whatever Works eventually overcomes itself, finding a surprising warmth and fulfilling an unseen promise to lighten up the little love curmudgeon in all of us.