Monday, February 28, 2011

Whatever Works (2009)

Why is that when comic writers (i.e. David and Ricky Gervais) appear in someone else's work, the result is always so much less inspiring than their own creations? I suppose the lesson is that while they can write for others, they shouldn't try to act for others. As a performer, Woody Allen possesses a whimsy and stature that give a gentle edge to even his most pointed barbs. David, on the other hand, specializes in a callous perspective that only works so well because his favorite subject matter is quite frothy (golf balls in whale blowholes, for instance). When dealing with more realistic events, David's bluster can be more brittle than amusing.

The first 15 minutes of this movie were almost unbearable, playing more like a stale stage production than a film. I was convinced it was yet another Larry David take on The Producers' scheme to make an intentionally awful Broadway production.

We're awkwardly introduced to the crochety Boris a middle-aged divorcee whose only pleasure in life is to remind everyone of his superior intellect, while decrying their stupidity. His day is spent berating his juvenile chess students and then insulting their parents who complain. As neurotic as he is disdainful, Boris constantly frets about his health, even after an unsuccessful attempt to end the life he works so hard to preserve.

The movie fails as an allegory when its fantasy plot neglects to convey anything meaningful, funny or original. Boris is such a cliched, literal "type" that his tale isn't really worthy of whimsical telling.

As the simple, Southern runaway that Boris takes in, Evan Rachel Wood's Melody is lovely, but never layered. You know as much about the character 5 seconds after she appears onscreen as you'll learn in the next 90 minutes. We're told that she's drawn to Boris because he's smart. Yet, she seemed just as impressed with him when she believed him to be a baseball player, as when she learns of his purported genius. Maybe, like Marilyn Monroe, she's drawn to both geniuses and baseball players. We never learn enough about her or her needs to find out.

For these reasons, the movie feels slow-going at first, but picks up considerably when Patricia Clarkson arrives as Melody's mother. At that point, Boris becomes more of an observer than a lead character and the movie is, thankfully, transformed into a conventional (albeit mild) comedy.

Watching Melody's parents lose their southern baptist inhibitions is pleasant, but makes no real commentary on the life they led or the amoral one they find in the Big City. Their sexual awakenings are never as wry or wacky as one could hope and feel more like a subplot on 30 Rock than a Woody Allen script.

In the end, when Melody finds a young lover and leaves Boris, he heaps more insults on her than usual and she takes that as a sign he is hurt. He treated his first wife in the same fashion and he's the one who left her. Ironically, he married the first wife because she was smart. We can theorize that Boris, who never realized his full potential, was attempting to validate his own intellect, by hitching himself to the first wife's academic star and then ultimately finding himself superior to her. In a similar way Melody may have tried vicariously to overcome her own limited upbringing, by attaching herself to Boris who had experienced more of the world than she and rejected it all, only to finally be the one rejected.

Of course, the movie never made me feel that Boris' pessimism and scorn were really masking vulnerability. His insensitivity would have had more depth, played as a defense, rather than a mere personality trait.

In the clumsily wrapped loose endings, the movie tells us that you should take love however and from whomever you can get it: whatever works. But the plot really wasn't about love, or luck, fate or coincidence. It was a sketch that should have been more fully drawn. Better than Melinda and Melinda, because the characters were more likable. Still, it contained nothing half as entertaining as an improvised episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Keep that day job, Larry.