Larry David plays Boris (a psychoanalyst of Woody's would tell us to look for deeper meaning in that character name, as in: "bore-us") a former self-appointed genius gone crotchety who precisely brings to mind that "lady with the shopping bag in the cafeteria screaming about Socialism" that Alvy Singer worries about turning into in Annie Hall. Oops!!... it's happened! In one of Whatever Works earlier moments, Boris' ex-wife leans back and tells him she can't take his "sophomoric tirades" about the world being a cesspool full of inchworms and cretins any longer. Sure, many former "Woody" characters have expressed a similar dissatisfaction with the world, but never with so arrogant a scowl as the surrogate Boris.
Actually, a "sophomoric tirade" might be the best way to describe the script for Whatever Works. Bashing gun-owners, pro-lifers, the religious, and right-wingers in general, has become so commonplace that I was shocked to hear so many audience members laugh at the limp jokes about the NRA (by my count, there were three of them). Woody was once funny about politics in something like Everbody Says I Love You when he poked fun at both the savior complex of limousine liberals and the way Lukas Haas' character became wrapped-up in the ideas of National Review because of a blood clot in his brain. But here, today, Allen simply comes off like an out-of-touch dolt.
Back in February, while embroiled in Natty R.'s We Can't Wait countdown, I expressed concern over Woody Allen taking on Southern characters in the comedic arena. Apparently my concern was well warranted, because Allen shows nothing less than full-on contempt for white people from the Deep South. What Allen/Boris posits in Whatever Works, is that Southerners are nothing but half-wits, mild vessels of potential who don't fully realize their true talents and identities until they've been embedded into the cultural and intellectual mecca that is New York City: Marietta's (Patricia Clarkson) life-chronicling photography in Mississippi quickly blossoms into serious artistry; Melodie's (Evan Rachel Wood) "abortion clinic" sense of fashion unravels and resurfaces as cute elegance; and John (Ed Begley Jr.), whose repressed gay urges have manifested into homophobia, ends up... well, duh!
For their part, both Clarkson and Wood do fine jobs circumventing Woody Allen's prejudice by turning in fine, human portrayals of Mississippians. Their performances are solid examples of a smart actor's conscience not getting corrupted by a nasty script. Clarkson grew up in Louisiana, and Wood in North Carolina, so the generosity and color they give to their characters isn't surprising. What also isn't surprising - the more I think about it - is the answer to what may be plaguing Allen, the filmmaker, right now. Like Boris, Allen seems more and more isolated from society, culture, and film than ever before. Yes, he recruited current "it" cinematographer Harris Savides to do the lensing, but as my wife rightly observed, Whatever Works lacks Savides' trademark glide. Worse, Allen's direction seems shiftless, uncaring, dare I say... senile.
I don't know what Allen is doing, where he's culling inspiration from, or if he himself is living by the "whatever works" pseudo-philosophy espoused by Boris. Whatever he's doing, it isn't working, because three out of Allen's last five films have been dreadful, and I don't think I can say that about any other period in his career.