Whatever Works

Note: This review has been re-published on Devtome.

Whatever Works is yet another opportunity for Woody Allen to showcase his witty, cynical and supercilious beliefs about life, love and the utter meaninglessness of the universe. In this film, Larry David plays the Woody Allen character, who really hasn’t changed much in some half century. He is brilliant, arrogant and highly neurotic, subject to frequent panic attacks.

The first thing that is necessary when watching Whatever Works it to get beyond the basic implausibility of the central premise. Namely, that a beautiful young woman, played by Evan Rachel Ward, would fall instantly in love with Larry David -an aging neurotic who, on top of everything else, is rude and insulting to her.

Ward plays the kind of part that few contemporary filmmakers would dare to create for fear of being charged with sexism, if not misogyny. She is not only the stereotypical dumb blonde, but the dumb rural Southerner. Never has Allen’s New York-centric biases been more apparent or overbearing. We also get to meet Ward’s equally backward parents, who come complete with alcoholism, fundamentalism and memberships in the NRA.

Whatever Works is still a mostly entertaining and funny film to watch. Allen creates a complex farce out of many mismatched characters and then resolves it all in an
unlikely but pleasing manner. Allen also throws in the postmodern device of having the actors -or one of them- speak directly to the audience. I’m not sure if this adds anything to the film, but it’s really a minor part of the movie in any case.

Allen’s films are almost always witty and insightful about human nature (if you can get past the stereotypes), and Whatever Works is no exception. Some people have complained that Allen’s work has diminished since his great films of the 1970s and 80s – Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, etc. I think the truth, however, is that his more recent films are not so much inferior to his earlier ones as retreads.

Woody Allen is considered to be a great 1970s director, which is true, but in fact his basic outlook on life is more typical of the 1950s. Not the small town, Norman Rockwellesque 1950s, but the New York secular humanist intellectual 1950s. The typical Woody Allen character is a composite of Freud and existentialists like Sartre, with some Dostoyevsky thrown in the mix.

There’s nothing wrong with this mentality -as any Allen protagonist could tell you, in many ways it’s more interesting, thought-provoking -and funny, of course- than
the typical characters who personify today’s largely post-literate cultural landscape.
There is, however, a certain irony to Allen’s New York elitism -namely, that it’s actually a rather extreme form of provincialism.

You simply can’t avoid the fact that, no matter how intellectual it all sounds, this
hardcore atheist/rationalist/existentialist mentality is dated and somewhat stagnant. Even Jean Paul Sartre, in his later years, moved on from the dour “meaninglessness of it all” of his youthful writings. Woody Allen, meanwhile, seems to be permanently rooted in this particular point in intellectual history.

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