“Whatever Works” could almost be the mantra of Woody Allen when setting out to make this 2009 comedy. It’s well-intentioned but poorly executed, putting Larry David behind the wheels of his New York City vehicle but without any directions on where he should go.
David stars as Boris, an aging, intellectual New Yorker who reluctantly takes in Melody, a young, attractive runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood) with a heart of gold and an empty wallet. Melody’s mother Marietta shows up in the picture, first at odds with the eccentricities of the city, but after enough time transforms into an artist vagabond. She also tries to set up Melody with a dashing, British man with an utterly American name, Randy Lee James (Henry Cavill). And then all the players find themselves drowning in a soiree of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”-type romantic escapades.
Released in 2009 at the height of his Curb Your Enthusiasm success, the film relies too heavily on David’s penchant for crankiness and social faux pas. It’s strange, because an actor like David, whose so self-hating and neurotic, seems like a natural fit for a Woody Allen picture. But what Allen doesn’t understand about David’s appeal is that his humor is best executed in loose leaf, improvised scenarios, where the characters know they have to get from A to Z, and can just make up the rest of the alphabet along the way. Injecting him into something scripted, where he can no longer genuinely be sardonic and self-loathing, but rather has to play sardonic and self-loathing, causes David to lose his quintessential charm (or lack there-of.)
Whatever Works feels like a forgotten or incomplete Woody Allen movie, not necessarily like one of his smaller comedies like Bananas, but like a film that’s run out of steam, a second or third-place trophy hiding behind Oscar statues on a mantle somewhere. Strangely enough, Whatever Works was Allen’s last New York film until Wonder Wheel, set to be released later in November. Perhaps when making Whatever Works, Allen discovered he was no longer inspired or moved by New York stories. Or maybe it was the film’s lack of success that pushed him to a more international trajectory with his acclaimed “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome With Love.” But it’s clear, whatever worked with those other films, didn’t work with this dud of a comedy.