"Let me tell you up front, I'm not a likable guy." Whatever Works (2009)...
It seems like every other year that Woody Allen is making a 'return to form'. After the misjudged London-set drama Cassandra's Dream (2007), the sun-soaked flourish of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) made a refreshing change of pace, and featured a glorious firecracker turn from an Oscar-winning Penélope Cruz. But, true to formula, Whatever Works finds Allen off-form in an overfamiliar regression which signifies not so much another dry patch as a full creative drought.
The story follows grumpy old man Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) as he bemoans the world and falls in love, despite his better judgement, with a young runaway named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he finds living rough outside of his apartment. There are some inspired lines dotted throughout the screenplay ("botanically speaking, you're more of a venus flytrap") but they're few and far between, and usually wedged between endless monologues, like the opening rant in which Boris drowns himself in hyperbole and reveals that this "won't be the feel-good movie of the year." No kidding. This level of narcissism was funny when somebody as naturally anxious as Allen took the lead, but David's obnoxious tone (perfected on Curb Your Enthusiasm) soon becomes tiresome. His voice is too distinctive for Allen's specific dialogue, and the tone always feels more HBO than Manhattan. Yellnikoff is about as appropriate as monikers get.
The emotional tone is also off. Allen's 70's work had real heart and feeling, and something to say about the nature of relationships (they're like a shark), but the message of Whatever Works sounds distinctly like a man giving up: "Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace. Whatever works." It's an amusing sentiment, especially when Melody applies it to sheep (Allen nodding to his own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex..., 1972), but it's too lazy to really connect, and matters aren't helped by the creepiness of the central relationship. Melody is a genuinely sweet-natured character (can this be the same actress who played Pretty Persuasion's devilish Kimberly?) so what she's doing with a cold, misanthropic, intellectually aggressive cramp, decades her senior, is quite the mystery. Boris even describes her, after they've been married (yes, that's just one of the contrivances) as a "sub-mental baton twirler." Lifts the heart, doesn't it?
As if all of this wasn't tedious enough, the introduction of Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) as an uptight religious fanatic who transforms into a sexually liberated artist is frankly absurd, and falls miles over the wrong side of parody. She wears her hair down in a bandana, occupies ménage à trois' in her (probably café-topside) gallery, and discusses with complete strangers the profound nature of art. At this point, you might have guessed, the film is beyond redemption. It frequently looks back to Annie Hall (1977) for inspiration, but too often just descends into another mean-spirited tirade against Melody.
There are moments of interest, notably in Allen's camerawork, but a few tracking shots can't make up for dialogue this ear-splitting. The supporting cast (bar Clarkson) are all effective in their roles, and allow for a break from the audience berating waffle of Boris, but the whole production just feels too old hat for us to care, and when a character breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience they're "idiots" it's hard to think of reasons not to leave. Oh, and considering that Allen has spent the last decade or so frequenting London, the appearance of an Englishman named Randy is just unforgivable.