whatever works

The knee jerk reaction to any of the marketing for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works is to assume that Allen cast Larry David in the lead role as a mildly updated proxy for Allen himself. But putting aside the obvious bald, neurotic Jewy-ness of both men, the connection proves tenuous. Allen’s lead characters tend to be neurotic, self deprecating wiseacres. In Whatever Works, David is a neurotic, self-aggrandizing wiseacre. Huge difference.

There’s an inherent contradiction in David’s character. Boris (yep, that’s really his name) is an award winning academic who fancies himself above all of the so-called “microbes” who inhabit his daily life. Yet he’s obsessive compulsive, suicidal, and uncomfortable in his own skin. His mantra, culled from life experience, is “whatever works.” As in, any way you can be happy in this life, make it happen. It’s a completely trite sentiment from the mouth of a character who’s otherwise incredibly pessimistic and self removed from society. Shockingly, in the hands of David, a non-actor, Boris almost works. It makes sense that Allen himself wouldn’t be right for the part, but Boris is still very much a product of Allen’s brain. He knows how to make a character like this tick, and it’s enough to make Whatever Works totally bearable.

But Allen is perfectly adept at writing overeducated New Yorkers of a certain age. That’s not a problem. Allen just doesn’t understand anyone else.

The rest of the principal characters in Whatever Works are southerners, each introduced to big scary New York at different points in the film. First, Evan Rachel Wood, a 21-year-old runaway, who clings to David as some kind of intellectual god, put on earth to correct her weirdly wholesome red state upbringing. David and Wood eventually marry, though Allen mercifully presents their relationship as only mildly affectionate and practically sexless. Later, we meet Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr., Wood’s separated parents, who each find some kind of ridiculous redemption through the magic of Manhattan and David’s perversely strong sphere of influence.

Wood, Begley, and Clarkson all come off as disingenuous Southern gothic pastiche. Wood’s character is further burdened with the curse of being young, an object for Allen’s fetishization and mockery, but without any depth, her motivations whimsical but wholly unnatural.

If not for the fact that the old man still has a knack for glib one liners, Whatever Works wouldn’t work at all. There’s still a little bit of humor let in the tank, and it’s enough to make you long for the Allen of old. But that guy won’t be back. You see, Boris’s motto is double sided. Allen used to be a great comedic mind, and now he just settles for whatever works. (Told you fuckers I went to headline writing school; I also took a seminar on hack closing lines.)

Film: Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr.

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; standard projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 45%

Next up: Bruno

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

curb

Curb Your Enthusiasm has always had a way of keeping funny in the face of incessant repetition. In nearly every episode, Larry has a misunderstanding, refuses to take what a normal person would see as a proper course of action to rectify said misunderstanding, and proceeds into a downward spiral caused by hostile forces coupled with his own stubbornness. This is a tightrope that most other half hour comedies cannot walk very successfully for very long. Curb has always played its formula as a strength, by gradually increasing the unexpectedness of each part of the downward spiral. Even when the final punch line is foreseen (as with the inevitable “I thought your party was last night!” kicker of the season premiere “Meet the Blacks”), there are a lot of big laughs along the journey.

Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see a few twists in the formula for season six: the arrival of a family of hurricane refugees who come to live with the Davids, and the presumed end of Larry and Cheryl’s marriage. The two twists worked hand in hand, as Larry’s relationship with the Blacks (the African-American hurricane family) became, over the course of the season, a natural replacement for the relationship with his wife. Looking back after the fact, the season long story arc must have practically written itself.

Larry’s interactions with those of other social classes have long been a well of comedy for Curb, as Larry often sees himself as charitable and enlightened, although his efforts are usually proven to be counter-productive. Which leads me to think about Curb’s portrayals of the differences in social classes and cultures. Homi Bhabha writes in The Location of Culture:

Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project…that takes you ‘beyond’ yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present [italics in original].

This begs the question about Larry David’s interactions with the “other”: Can a performative, bumbling, self-righteous and arrogant soul like Larry David ever really go beyond himself to bridge a cultural gap such that he really understands someone (anyone) else? In season six, Larry was dead set against the adoption of the Blacks, but soon developed a camaraderie with them that seemed more genuine than any of his other relationships (be they spouse, friend or family). But how that familial community was built is a topic for scrutiny. Did Larry just assume relationships out of convenience, or did he do so in conjunction with a newfound understanding of the “other?”

I choose to believe the latter, because as funny as it is to watch the same windbag humiliate himself episode after episode, it’s nice to be able to find some emotional growth in a protagonist.

Let’s just hope a more mature Larry David, with his new family in tow, won’t lead to an unfunny season seven. As this season proved, a little character development shouldn’t kill a tried and true formula.

>>Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1994.