“Hello, I must be going,” warbles Groucho Marx over the opening credits of Woody Allen’s latest. If only. Whatever Works, a reported reworking of a 30-year-old script, is overtly old. Revisiting the filmmaker’s usual themes and locations, it returns him as well to New York, where the Woody Allen Character Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) lives — alone and angry — telling and retelling his woes to a coterie of friends, who may or may not think his rants entertaining.
The movie opens on the occasion of one such tirade. Boris laments the “failed species” he sees before him, unable to realize the “great ideas” articulated by Jesus and Karl Marx alike. “Tell them your story, Boris,” urges one unnamed friend (Michael McKean). Oh no, he resists, gesturing to “the human beings out there who bought tickets so they can watch us.” His compatriots peer at the camera, unable to see what he’s seeing. He stands and walks, the camera tracking forward with him, continuing to complain about sports and portfolios and fruits and vegetables, “the horror” construed by Conrad’s Kurtz. Across the street, a boy (Clifford Lee Dickson) — one of three black people glimpsed in this iteration of Woody Allen’s New York — is worried: “Mom, that man’s talking to himself!”
That about sums up Whatever Works: Boris-as-Allen is talking to himself. His story, as he goes on to tell it in flashback, is comprised of efforts to find a partner commensurate to his brilliance. A former Columbia Professor and self-identified genius who “almost won” a Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics, Boris remembers most his disastrous relationships with women. He begins here with the night he realized his marriage to Jessica (Carolyn McCormick) was a bust. “I’m a man with a huge world view,” he tells her, “And I’m surrounded by microbes.” She suggests that his panic attacks are getting the better of him. He jumps out the window.
As he’s speaking, you know he survived the fall, and indeed, he hit the canopy below. With his second chance, he took up teaching chess to “cretins” on Mott Street, students who don’t get that even if a black man can get to the White House, he still couldn’t get a cab in Manhattan. Boris’ vividly limited expertise on race relations notwithstanding, he holds forth here as he does on every other subject. When, one evening, his verbal abuse of a chess student’s mother stuns even his buddies, Boris heads home to his apartment alone. Hiding in the shadows by his stairway, he meets the girl who serves as the film’s Major Problem to Be Solved, a homeless runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood).
Her function here is utterly standard in the Woody Allen Universe, a function apparently enhanced by the fact that she is utterly stupid (this may be a reformulation of Hattie’s muteness in Sweet and Lowdown, the single film where the Allen dynamic of lowdown male and sweet female is even bearable, owing to perfect performances by Samantha Morton and Sean Penn). Melodie, Boris pronounces, seems “a character out of Faulkner, not unlike Benjy,” in that her simplicity grants her a mythic purity, which in turn makes her admiration of Boris appear credible. As Melodie requests and gets permission to move in with Boris until she gets on her feet, he is increasingly encouraged by her approbation — in addition to the pleasures afforded by correcting her repeatedly (he introduces her to knishes, which she misidentifies as “quishes,” at which point he rolls his eyes while looking happily superior)
No matter what Boris says or does, Melodie believes it and emulates it. When she returns drunk from a date with a boy her age and declares that he and his friends “protons,” Boris is moved to propose to her. At last, a woman he can mold to his own needs and desires, a woman who will love him unconditionally. “The chance factor of life,” he says as he gazes on his most perfect match, “is mind-boggling.”
The rest of Whatever Works follows the Woody Allen playbook pretty much word for word (see: Annie Hall, Manhattan). As Boris educates his wife, she begins to see herself differently. That’s not to say she ever doubts his genius, but it is to say that new experiences lead her to see her present limits. It’s not as if Melodie wasn’t already capable of such vision — she did, after all, leave her rural Tennessee home, where her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) had her competing in beauty contests. In the city, Melodie discovers options beyond “just a nice moment behind the tent at the fish fry,” some premised on Boris’ use of Viagra and most on her exposure to paintings and movies and music, Beethoven and Stan Getz being remedies for all manner of ignorance.
Melodie’s predictable trajectory is briefly muddled by the separate arrivals of her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and father John (Ed Begley Jr.), both in need of their own reeducations via exposures to art and sex. Boris oversees most of the action, muttering about his inevitable losses against backgrounds ranging from the Statue of Liberty to Grant’s Tomb. It doesn’t much matter where Boris goes, as he always sees the same “big picture.” You’ve seen it as well, and too often.