Jennifer Aniston was quoted recently as stating most romantic comedies aren’t predicated on the act of falling in love or the characters involved in such an act. It’s more about the scheme they’ve cooked up. This is accompanied by the idea of the “meet cute,” in which the characters must bump into each other in a way that hasn’t been seen before. “I ran you over with my car? Let’s fall in love.” I hesitate to label Whatever Works, the latest film by Woody Allen, a romantic comedy due to the negative connotations involved therein. Instead, it’s a comedy about finding love wherever possible.
Boris Yellnikoff is a genius, or at least he proclaims to be. His story consists of once being considered for a Nobel Prize in the field of quantum mechanics. Perhaps it was the failure to reach this pinnacle achievement that turned Boris cold to the human race. Either way, he says his superior intellect gives him the singularly unique ability to see “the big picture” and it frightens him. He wakes in the middle of the night in panic attacks, announcing that he’s dying, “not now, but eventually.” He associates with a few friends, although he despises the human population and refers to them as either microbes, inchworms or cretins. He’s unsuccessfully attempted suicide and now suffers from a permanent limp after splitting up with his wife because their marriage was too logical and rational for him to bear.
Limping home one night, Boris encounters a “sub-mental” named Melodie St. Ann Celestine. She’s a wide-eyed, 21-year-old, country girl on flee from her adulterous parents. She begs Boris to let her inside his apartment to clean herself up, and after resisting for as long as possible, Boris allows the “half-wit” to stay overnight. The night turns into days, turns into weeks. Through hours of conversation with her intellectual superior, Boris’ views on life rub off on her and she admits to having a crush on him. This eventually changes Boris’ perception of her, and again after fighting off all obvious reason they shouldn’t be together, they get married.
As any marriage with four decades separating the spouses, it has its ups and downs, but by-and-large, it seems functional. Boris is happy to have somebody bow to his masterful mind. One day, however, after a long search, Melodie’s mother shows up at the doorstep. She’s a dedicated Evangelical and lord knows what happens when she finally finds her runaway daughter to discover she’s married to a Brooklyn Jew two score her senior. She faints, then proceeds to make it her mission to find a more suitable husband for her daughter, threatening to wreck the foundation Boris and Melodie had built with each other.
Woody Allen has long been associated with comedy ever since emerging onto the scene some fifty years ago, but it seems his drama films are the more acclaimed, or at least they have been recently. Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point eclipse Scoop, Melinda and Melinda and Anything Else in both notoriety and quality. However, Allen returns to form here in a way that evokes the great Annie Hall. The quickest ways this film can be identified with his former masterpiece is when Boris breaks the fourth wall. One of the most recognizable moments from his Best Picture-winning film is when Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is stuck in a line waiting for a movie when a blowhard in front of him starts dissecting Federico Fellini’s work, using the words of Marshall McLuhan. Alvy happens to have McLuhan handy and has him tell the blowhard he’s an idiot. Alvy then breaks the fourth wall and says directly to the audience, “Wouldn’t it be great if life were like this?” Boris tells his story to us directly and of course we see it play out, while he references us “out there” from time to time. The trick works just as effectively today as it did in 1977, as it helps to reign the audience in.
Allen is also used to working with the same actors for a few films at a time, but this time out his two leads are entirely new to the world of Woody Allen. In fact, Larry David isn’t really an actor at all. He plays a version of himself in his HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and all of his work is essentially improvised. This is his first film role, and with Boris he takes up the task of playing the “Woody Allen character.” David is a neurotic, much like Allen, and their pairing is a perfect marriage. David may not be the actor Allen is, but he pulls off the task of the cynical, “world-is-against-me” character he’s asked to so well, I yearned for him to return whenever he was off-screen. The love interest of Melodie is portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler), who continues her ascent toward being recognized as one of the top actresses of her generation. She plays funny, quirky and dumb, but with a likability you can see Boris growing fond of.
Of course, what really separates this film from Allen’s past few other “comedies” is that it’s funny. It might also be one of Allen’s most personal films. Although the script was apparently written in the 70s and dusted off, it seems to reflect Allen’s current outlook on life. A lot of people have been turned off to Allen, the person, due to his relationship with his at-one-point adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn and his quote, “the heart wants what it wants.” The theme of Whatever Works carries a similar philosophy, while depicting a relationship with a multi-generational gap. This may not change anyone’s perception of Allen, the man, but may work to explain a little bit more about how his mind operates.
It’s been far too long since Allen has been relevant in the comedy world and this may not be his greatest triumph, but it’s far more successful at bringing the laughter than his past few attempts. Those hoping to witness a return to form for Allen in his genre roots will find it here or at least a kick-start to what will hopefully continue on into future years. Allen will almost certainly continue to carve out his niche on the dramatic scale of things, but when he hits the comedic nail-on-the-head, it deserves to be celebrated. Romantic comedy formulas be damned, Woody Allen is having none of it.