Woody Allen's last film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, seemed to signal a long-awaited return to form after the embarrassing badness of his British-set movies. The fact that the next film was set in Manhattan gave further hope to long-suffering fans of the prolific writer-director. However, Whatever Works turns out to be only fitfully funny and at times strangely unpleasant.
The problem is not a dark world-view underlying the material - Allen's pessimism about humanity only made films like Husbands and Wives, and Crimes and Misdemeanors seem all the more brilliant - but smugness and complacency, combined with the casting of Larry David, star of the sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm, as the Woody Allen-ish lead character.
David brings an unnerving nastiness to the role of Boris Yellnikoff, a misanthropic, hypochondriac former professor of physics. Once tipped to win a Nobel prize, now he lives alone in a downtown apartment in the wake of a divorce and a failed suicide attempt.
Boris, who talks to the camera a lot (a device that seems less clever and funny now than it did in Allen's early work), makes a living teaching kids chess, though with his habit of abusing his students, you cannot believe he has many clients. But he spends most of his time hanging out in cafes with other late-middle-aged guys of an erudite type familiar from previous Allen movies. Perhaps because of his baldness, David looks almost as old as the director himself, so the inevitable sexual relationship with a gorgeous, very young woman seems even creepier than in recent Allen offerings.
The girl is one Melody Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a runaway teenage beauty queen from the deep South who persuades Boris to take her in. She is dumb and uneducated but sweet-natured, and she soon wins over her gruff host, thanks to her willingness to look after him and to take on board his beliefs about the universe (doomed), people (cretinous), and God (non-existent).
Though Boris initially says he does not want to be her Pygmalion, that is exactly what he becomes, and their relationship is both paternal and sexual in the usual slightly queasy Allen way.
However, an element of broad farce comes into the film with the arrival at Boris's apartment of Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and eventually her father (Ed Begley Jr). Both are God-fearing, uptight, conservative Southerners of a type that looms large and sinister in the imaginations of New Yorkers who only know of the South from movies and books and sheer prejudice. Both are, of course, transformed into better, happier people by the liberating atmosphere of New York - a city whose magic seems to work less well for natives like Boris.
Clarkson is a fine actress and by far the best thing in Whatever Works. She somehow manages to soften and humanise the stereotype of the repressed Southern belle whose latent sexuality is just waiting to be unleashed by nights spent in the bed of a New York ethnic or two.
One of the implicit points of Whatever Works is that Jewish New Yorkers are in their own way every bit as provincial as the denizens of the smallest Southern and Western hamlets. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly an unintended one. Indeed, it is clear that Allen blithely assumes the audience shares his reflexive Manhattan-provincial notions about the absurdity of religious belief, the idiocy of rural life, and the wrongness of gun-ownership.
Early in the film, Boris's ex-wife begs him to stop his tirades against, what he calls, "this shameful, violent, prejudiced, sexually repressed, self-righteous nation". Unfortunately, he never does, and because they are not that funny or that clever, it makes it all the harder to like either the character or the movie.