Larry David & Evan Rachel Wood Work Best In “Whatever Works”
Sometimes, the performances in a movie are so great that it makes the movie better than it really is. Take “As Good As It Gets”. Is that a great movie or an average movie lifted up with brilliant performances? “Whatever Works” is a movie that rises up to be better than it actually is due to the acting, which is fairly amazing considering the star of the movie, Larry David, hasn’t done any true acting in his life.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant physicist who has given up on humanity. Fortunately, he hasn’t given up and gone into total exile, he has given up on people and he lets them all know it. Boris tears into children for playing chess poorly, then he turns around and tears into their parents for raising imbeciles. Boris is Larry David from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to the Nth degree.
Boris’ life is set up with a brilliant monologue from Larry David in the movie’s first scene. Writer/director Woody Allen pulled the same talk to the audience move in “Annie Hall” and it works like a charm. It’s more of a soliloquy than a monologue as Boris tells his thoughts and feelings about his failed marriage, failed attempt to win a Nobel Prize, and, most notably, his failed suicide.
Don’t sweat it, the movie doesn’t have a heavy handed bone in its body, especially once Evan Rachel Wood shows up. I’ve seen her in plenty of movies and I just haven’t seen the big deal about her…until now. She goes toe to toe with Larry David and, as difficult as this is for me to type, she may come out ahead in the laugh department. Wood is Melody St. Anne Celestine, a runaway to New York from backwoods Mississippi. Boris takes her in and, in true Summer-Winter Woody Allen Romance Fashion, they slowly fall for each other.
This is where the movie’s wheels fall off a bit. The problem with the older man-younger woman story is that we have seen it all before, even in the aforementioned “As Good As It Gets” and especially in Woody Allen’s films. Almost every Woody Allen film. While David and Wood are a laugh riot, there is a moment where the story runs into a brick wall. I won’t give away when or how, but it’s a bit of a groaner.
Eventually, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. show up as Melody’s estranged parents. They hee-haw and pray their way into the movie, but their Southern idiocy is on full display here. Get ready for Red State, NRA, and fish fry jokes galore as Boris rips Melody’s parents to their faces. It’s classic Woody Allen insults through and through. Boris is not a nice guy and his rude behavior would make you despise him if he wasn’t a) so unbelievably funny and b) a hypocritical car crash of a human being himself.
Unfortunately, Melody’s parents become cliched rednecks and, after staying in New York City for a time, they are changed. They finally see the true light and meaning of life by the big city New York intellectuals. It’s very pretentious and fairly insulting. Yes, these people are simple-minded and basic, but it doesn’t mean they are bad people.
Woody Allen wrote this script back in the 1970s and it was intended to star Zero Mostel. While the thought of that is riotous, Larry David dominates this movie. There are a few moments that felt forced and older than Woody Allen and Larry David combined. Seriously, how many times can Woody use the “I’m dying…not now, but eventually!” joke?
That being said, the movie is saved by David and Wood, with a great supporting performance from Patricia Clarkson. David doesn’t prove he could star in a mainstream comedy or anything, but he definitely proves there may not be a better person alive better at firing off a truly biting, insightful, hilarious insult than him. Wood is in full dumb blond mode and she keeps right up with David. Her optimistic, bright eyed Melody is impossible to dislike, even when her Southern local yokel sensibility makes you want to throw a shoe at her. She’s adorable and you can believe it that David’s Boris eventually falls for her.
Sadly, David and Wood’s performance are the only thing keeping the movie afloat. If not for them, the movie is a potential bomb. The cliched characters, the predictable moments, the sappy ending, all can be overlooked due to the acting. Woody Allen is still living in the old comedy world and these plot devices just don’t work anymore.
Of course, Woody’s scripts will always attract big name actors. Let’s hope he sticks with Larry David in the “Woody” role from now on. That way, if a Woody script hits a home run, we’ll get to see two great comedians at the top of their game.