The negative attitude towards people and the belief in uncontrolled luck centre stage in this film are not a far-fetch from Woody Allen’s own views on life.
Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is a crotchety hater of humankind that lives in selective isolation after a failed suicide attempt followed by a divorce from a picture-perfect wife and career as a physicist at Columbia. One night he reluctantly takes in Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a naïve, impressionable teenage runaway from the South. Absorbing and learning from Boris’ insults directed at her and the world, Melody develops a crush on Boris and he finds himself viewing Melody in a less harsh light as well. The two get married and are relatively happy until Melody’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) appears on their doorstep, seeking her daughter and an escape from her cheating husband (Ed Begley Jr.). She faints upon learning Melody is married to an old, eccentric curmudgeon. Marietta unexpectedly develops into a sexually-free, boundary-pushing photographer that settles into a ménage à trois. However, still not content with her daughter’s choice, she schemes to unite Melody with a handsome actor (Henry Cavill) that claims to have fallen in love with Melody at first sight. Melody’s father eventually comes to New York too seeking to reunite his family but instead finds they are better off without him and he discovers he’s better off living without an oppressive lie. In the end, romantic partners uncouple and realign, learning there are no rules and you simply have to follow whatever works.
A typical component of Allen’s films is dialogue directed at the audience, rather than characters within the story world. In this case, Boris has several monologues spoken to the audience, directly at the camera. His genius is displayed through the fact that no one except Boris is capable of realizing there is an audience watching.
Whatever Works is character driven and explores the eccentricities of relationships and living a life that makes you happy. While Boris’ pessimism can be nagging, it’s nearly distressing when Melody begins to emit his negativity (what she understands of it anyway) like a poisoned sponge.
David’s character is similar to his Curb Your Enthusiasm counterpart, but more hateful as he doesn’t even crave love or sex. Even with the similarity, David was an ideal choice for this part, which was to originally be played by Zero Mostel before his passing. Wood’s portrayal of a dumb, inexperienced pageant queen lost in the big city and struggling to hold onto the first security she finds is impeccable. Watching, you just want to protect her from being gobbled up by the world or worn down by Boris. The supporting cast is also wonderful, with Clarkson’s entertaining transition from uptight Southern belle to free-wheeling artist and Cavil’s only real responsibility being be British and charming.
This is another amusing romp down unconventional lane with Allen and it’s as enjoyable as ever.