Tuesday, July 07, 2009

WHATEVER WORKS

When Woody Allen serves up a double-shot of narcissism and nihilism in that coffee cup that Larry David drinks from in Whatever Works' opening scene, it is a back-breaking "ohhh sh*t..." moment; a heavy, defeated sigh following months of nervous hope that one of your favorites wouldn't go down the path of tired and trendy antipathy that was hinted at in early plot leaks and trailers. Had Allen spent the rest of the film filleting the exaggerated caricature of himself that Larry David portrays, or, had he turned Whatever Works into another of his late-period madcap, bittersweet, love-tinged comedies (among them, Small Time Crooks, Melinda & Melinda, and Scoop... all of which I regularly defend), then the writer/director's forty-third film might have had life. Instead, it's just plain bitter... and might be one of his worst.

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.

25 comments:

Craig said...

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.

Most folks probably wouldn't disagree with you there, but they might disagree with you and each other on what those three are. I've heard "Match Point" slammed as trash and hailed as a masterwork. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" has its share of admirers (including myself, an Allen agnostic) and its detractors. Yet at least one of those detractors (N.P. Thompson) has given a glowing review to "Whatever Works," while another (yourself) has panned it. "Scoop" has been defended by some as a small pleasure and dismissed by others as a limp trifle. And everybody seems indifferent to "Cassandra's Dream," yet disagree on their degrees of indifference.

I'm not sure I have a point to make, just that I find all of this interesting, perhaps more so than the films themselves.

bill r. said...

I liked Cassandra's Dream. And Scoop. Why a pleasant little diversion like Scoop made so many people so angry is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

Ever since Anything Else, Woody Allen has been enjoying one of the most artistically successful phases of his career - and recently it's been commercially successful too. I guarantee his next two, to be shot in London and Paris, will be huge as well.

Of course, the best thing about him is that he couldn't less what a cretinous products of incest such as yourself think.

Fox said...

Craig-

You don't have to worry about making points here (see comment #3)! :)

But yes, I should give out the three I find dreadful : Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and, of course, Whatever Works.

What makes Allen a fun director to discuss is that - as you pointed out - movie fans respond in such disparate ways.

Match Point I found average at first, but on a second viewing found it really plodding and kind of desperate.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona felt overstuffed. I start to blush whenever Woody tries to shoot the erotic, and when his camera keeps reminding us that "hey, look, I'm filming in Spain!" I just wanna say, "dude, get real, you're a comedian."

Still, I find defences of those films entertaining (and pretty convincing at times as well), I just don't feel it.

BTW... I think his worst movie to date is Anything Else. Kind of has that "awww f*ck it!" title like Whatever Works does.

Fox said...

Bill-

I like Cassandra's Dream... to a point. I definitely think it was trounced upon too much especially in light of what he made in the time surrounding that film.

I love Colin Farrell in the movie. And I like the brotherly story, but the murder on my mind aspect didn't work for me near as well as it did in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

And on Scoop, I should add that it's one of the few times that I really, really liked Scarlett Johannsen. I wish she would do more comedies.

Fox said...

Of course, the best thing about him is that he couldn't less what a cretinous products of incest such as yourself think....

Anon-

I "couldn't less" what he thinks about me either, so I guess that puts me and Woody on a level playing field.

As for being "cretinous products of incest", that's very true about myself, but I don't appreciate you trashing Craig or Bill that way. But maybe you weren't... I had trouble with your pluralizations.

Ed Howard said...

This film is really divisive, huh? I thought it was uneven myself, and can sympathize with those turned off by the bile of David's character -- that opening monologue is really uncomfortable. But I enjoyed the way Woody filleted and poked at his Southern cliches, who are such self-conscious stereotypes that I can't imagine Woody intended them to be taken as realistic portrayals of Southerners. And Patricia Clarkson gave such a good performance that the character winds up with some depth anyway.

As for the rest of Woody's recent work, it's no secret I'm a big fan. I think Anything Else and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are his recent masterpieces, and his others of the last few years are mostly solid, entertaining minor works of varying quality. Scoop is especially good in the light comedy vein, and is probably the most I've ever enjoyed Scarlet Johanssen as an actress; she's really funny in that. I think Cassandra's Dream got jumped on mainly for returning to the same territory Woody had already mined pretty deeply. It's an interesting film in some ways, but at the time it felt kind of redundant after Match Point; I wonder if I'd feel differently watching it again now with more distance from it.

ralphie said...

Fox -- yew air a contemptable bag of doggy puss for even thinking of trashing the woood-man. He air so sophisticated, even more sophisticated than your mother!

Hah!

Yur frind, Ralphie.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, I feel stupid for even commenting now. Ralphie totally said what I was trying to say in so many fewer words.

Fox said...

Ed-

Wow. I knew you were a defender of some of Allen's later work (as I like to think I am too...) but I didn't know you thought so highly of Anything Else. I'd like to read your thoughts on it (I will be searching Only The Cinema after posting this), and I'll admit your declaration is already making me want to see it again.

But I enjoyed the way Woody filleted and poked at his Southern cliches, who are such self-conscious stereotypes that I can't imagine Woody intended them to be taken as realistic portrayals of Southerners....

See, I was wanting to feel that way. I was hoping to be convinced in the end that it was Boris who was transformed and not Melodie, Marietta, and John who did the changing. And even after Melodie is a different person, Allen still takes a swipe at her with the "am I a member of my own generation?" line.

I don't mind ditzy jokes. Mighty Aprodite had a reel full of them, but Mira Sorvino's character had humanity in the writing of it. I think most of the humanity we get from Melodie and Marietta comes from the actresses themselves (I agree with you that Clarkson is great). Ed Begley Jr. simply didn't get enough screen time for us to get an impression.

Fox said...

Ralpie-

WTF, dude! You were totally agreeing with me about this movie in the chat room earlier today, but now it seems like you just wanna score points with Anonymous.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I've written about Anything Else here. I know I'm in the minority but I love it. It's such a rich film.

As for Whatever Works, I think Boris did change by the end -- he maintains that gruff, angry surface but just look at the first shot and then the last shot. In the first he's a solitary, hostile man, spitting angrily at the world. In the last he's part of a community, surrounded by friends, at the center of a frame crowded with people enjoying themselves and one another. That's part of what the film is about: becoming a part of something, getting outside of oneself. The Southerners do it by opening themselves up to NYC liberalism, and Boris does it by softening his distaste for other people.

I will say I find Woody's "ditz" jokes really annoying, both here and in the equally uneven Mighty Aphrodite.

Linden Arden said...

I haven't seen this film yet, but I'm kind of looking forward to it. I have to say, I much prefer this particular stage of Allen's career to anything he produced between Deconstructing Harry and Match Point.

Also, chalk up another fan for Scoop. I really enjoyed that one. The Nancy Drew meets Danny Rose pairing of Johansson and Allen worked much better than I was initially expecting.

Marilyn said...

I wish I could add to the discussion but I will just have to sit here and be an awesome presence in silence. Mr. Allen has been out of my life for some time and I'm afraid it's too late, baby, now.

Fox said...

As for Whatever Works, I think Boris did change by the end -- he maintains that gruff, angry surface but just look at the first shot and then the last shot. In the first he's a solitary, hostile man, spitting angrily at the world. In the last he's part of a community, surrounded by friends, at the center of a frame crowded with people enjoying themselves and one another. That's part of what the film is about: becoming a part of something, getting outside of oneself....

Ed-

That's true, Boris does change, but I would argue very minimally in comparison to the three Mississippians. I don't think his views have changed at all. You could even argue that he's also surrounded by friends early on in the scenes with his male friends. It's just when Boris starts getting laid that we see him ease up a little, and then that's only when the Mississippians come around to his way of thinking.

Similar is the way Marietta introduces the joys of gumbo to her two lovers. It's portrayed as a nice accent or added benefit to them having taken her as a lover, but the two men still maintain that cultural superiority and influence over her. It's like the gumbo is a remnant from some past, primitive life that they can enjoy together as they discuss art.

Fox said...

Linden-

I like your "Nancy Drew meets Danny Rose" analogy. And you're right, Johansson and Allen have a special chemistry that had to be unexpected by 99% of us. I especially like when he talks about his glasses floating away in the swimming pool.

Marilyn-

I think your take on Whatever Works would be an interesting one. Maybe you should take the hubby to see it this weekend and then report back to us via FOF!

One of the critics linked over at Metacritic wonders if the intentions of Whatever Works is tied into Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. I think he's onto something. Boris' relationship with Melodie is built around the fantasy of imprinting your ideals on a kind of "clean-slate" woman. I wonder if Allen perceives his relationship with Soon-Yi in a similar way.

Marilyn said...

I had thought that. He's often telling me that depictions of Southerners that I think are OTT are dead-on.

Pat said...

Fox -

Great post. I liked it considerably better than you did, but would never defend this as one of Woody's greater films. Its pleasures are slight, and David's performance was an uncomfortably mixed bag for me (and I'm a HUGE fan of David's).

For the record, I'm with you on Scoop and Small Time Crooks (and Anything Else, which I found odious), but Melinda and Melinda was a unholy mess. I even watched the first half of it again last night on IFC, but I just can't embrace it - the comic half is pleasant enough, but the "serious" half is actually, however unintenionally, funnier.

ralphie said...

WTF, dude! You were totally agreeing with me about this movie in the chat room earlier today, but now it seems like you just wanna score points with Anonymous. ...

Dear Fux:

Air yu suggesten that I am a hummusexual? Cause if yu air, I gotta thing fur YEW, rite hear in my pocket.

Jest wait till I get it out ...

Yur frend, Ralphie.

Fox said...

Marilyn-

I wouldn't really complain so much that Allen's depiction of Southerners is over-the-top. They're exaggerated for sure, but so is Boris. It's just that I think Allen's attitude towards Southerners in this movie is contemptuous.

Of course, he keeps his sight soley on the white, religious, gun-toting southerners because they're an acceptable target in Hollywood circles.

Fox said...

Pat-

Thanks!

I agree with you about David. I like the guy too, but Boris was like his Curb Your Enthusiasm persona turned up to 11... but WITHOUT any of the self-mockery. It made me pretty uncomfortable as well. As Ed said earlier, that opening monologue is pretty cringe-worthy.

And I'll have to revisit Melinda & Melinda. Now that you mention the flaws in the non-comedic half, I remember feeling the same. I've never considered it a great Allen film, but I think it's good, and better than what was said about at the time.

I'm looking forward to revisiting these films now to see if I have a different reaction.

Fox said...

Ralphie-

You sound like you're from the South!!

You're probably stroking a gun as you type your blog comments. Right? But at least you know what a blog is. Most of your kind don't even know what a DVD player is. I bet when the TV signals went digital you were standing on your roof in your overalls cursing at the antenna!

Am I right or what???

Ed Howard said...

See, I thought it was the *comedy* half of Melinda and Melinda that was lacking -- it just wasn't very funny at all. The drama half I thought was quite good, tinging into over-the-top melodrama but anchored by an absolutely astonishing performance from Radha Mitchell (and, actually, really good dramatic performances all around). This is why the reactions to Woody's films are always so interesting: here we all are agreeing that Melinda and Melinda is half a good film, but we can't agree on which half is the good one.

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