Attempting to impress his ideologies on religion, relationships, and the randomness (and worthlessness) of existence, lifelong New York resident Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) rants to anyone who will listen, including the audience. But when he begrudgingly allows naive Mississippi runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) to live in his apartment, his reclusive rages give way to an unlikely friendship and Boris begins to mold the impressionable young girl's worldly views to match his own. When it comes to love, "whatever works" is his motto, but his already perplexed life gets even more complicated when Melodie's parents eventually track her down - one by separated one. All their lives change in New York's melting pot.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Back in his beloved, multifaceted, flawed yet irresistible New York, Woody Allen brings together his two sides: the crusty old Jewish philosopher with a decidedly negative world view, and the romantic humanist filmmaker. The result is a stew that is not as satisfying as the gumbo which Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) gets to enjoy so much, after accepting into his life a blonde bimbo from Mississippi, 21 year old runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood).
But before that happens, Woody Allen makes an astute decision, to have Boris address the audience from time to time for some earnest discussion - not that anyone else in his world can see us. It's a risky move but for me, it's one of the best things in the film, probably because the pieces to camera are easier to accept than the rest of the rather contrived dialogue. Not to say it's trite, but so much of this film is artificial that we just can't get fully involved. There are laughs and chuckles, but it's a bit superficial.
Nothing rings quite true, not Boris' suicide attempts, not the relationship with Melodie, not her parents and their individual rebirths in characters at total odds with who they were before arriving in New York searching for their daughter. It's not their transformations that I mind, it's the way Allen handles them, like jokes in a routine.
The title refers to the Boris Yellnikoff (don't labour on the name) mindset about this miserable life: do whatever it takes to make you happy, because there isn't much going round and most of the nice things that happen to you happen out of sheer luck. I'll drink to that.
But the film is not sincere enough nor black enough to really work the Allen magic; while I am ready to buy much of the Boris Yelnikoff view of mankind as a bunch of hopeless, stupid, wrong-headed misfits and cowards, greedy sons of bitches and selfish egotists, I don't believe Boris really means it. If we felt he did, it would be a truly black comedy; but Allen also subverts the film's anti-romantic spirit when he can't help but pull a rose out of the film's rear end.
Review by Louise Keller:
It plays like a stream of consciousness Woody Allen style, this New York comedy of errors about luck and squeezing every little drop out of life while you have the chance. Of course it is impossible not to view the film's basic premise involving an old codger (a neurotic, paranoid, self-professed genius with a pessimistic outlook) and his nymphette muse as a possible peek into Allen's real-life relationship, which in itself, adds its own intrigue. Larry David's central character, Boris Yellnikoff, is disarmingly close to another version of Allen himself as he recounts in grand philosophical style (not only to his Jewish buddies onscreen but to us, out there in cinema land) how the irrational heart and that little bit of luck are our only hope for happiness in the ever-spinning roulette wheel of life.
In case you are wondering, I really enjoyed the film. It's not Allen's best and there is a theatricality that keeps us somewhat at arm's length; despite the highly successful direct to camera confidences, which are surprisingly endearing. I laughed, related to the philosophies and ironies of life, enjoyed the music (classical and jazz) and got a kick out of the outcomes for the handful of unexpectedly divergent characters Allen has knitted together in this sweater of angst. I'm admittedly an Allen fan, and it will be the fans and those with a more mature palette that will be drawn by the frazzled world view that Allen creates so well. There's witty dialogue, a wry point of view, a piquant sense of humour and plenty of the neuroses that Allen has made his trademark. Like Boris' paranoia that his mosquito bite will become a melanoma or his idea of New York sightseeing is a trip to the Holocaust Museum.
The intersecting plotlines are disarmingly revealed as Boris and Melodie's (Evan Rachel Wood) story branches out to include other complex and angst ridden characters. Like the ever-marvellous Patricia Clarkson who, as Marietta (and fate) comes knocking on the door (right in the middle of Beethoven's 5th) and finds new passions. Fortunately, we never see any passion between Boris and Melodie (that would be too much to inflict on any audience) but there's also Randy the Romantic (Henry Cavill), who believes in love at first sight and Ed Begley Jr.'s John who has revelations about God's sexuality. There's also a great analogy involving love and toothpaste. All the performances sing and by the time the famous New York New Year's Eve ball is ready to drop, life's twists and turns have found their happy conclusion.
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WHATEVER WORKS (M)
CAST: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Adam Brooks, Lyle Kanouse, Michael McKean, Clifford Lee Dickson, Yolonda Ross, Carolyn McCormick
PRODUCER: Stephen Tenenbaum, Letty Aronson
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
SCRIPT: Woody Allen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Harris Savides
EDITOR: Alisa Lepselter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Santo Loquasto
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 15, 2009