All that Angst Just for This?

Woody Allen's new film revisits his old haunts on the Upper West Side. But it's a bit of a let-down

Peter Whittle

A great schlep: Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood in “Whatever Works”

Whatever Works: now there’s a title that suggests the throwing in of towels. Woody Allen, having done his tour of London and Europe and produced a string of mostly critically mauled duds, has for his latest movie returned to Manhattan, to his own turf and people. That is, to the world of sophisticated liberal intellectual types who find it hard to use two words where 20 will do, who kvetch about love and God and what it all means and whether it’s all worth it in the first place. And what has he come up with? A comedy, which, even while it goes through the motions, feels like an exhausted postscript to years of analysis. Can relationships really work? Who is the right person for us? How does the can-opener work? Well now, just relax: whatever gets you through the night.

Last month in this column, I bemoaned the changes in New York that had robbed Allen of his natural territory. Years of Carrie Bradshaw, Mayor Giuliani and perhaps even 9/11 had changed his habitat. His people no longer defined the culture, nor could his films. But there are still pockets of his tribe, mostly on the Upper West Side. For this, his first New York comedy in a good decade, Woody settles on a small bunch of individuals and their intertwining relationships, and attempts to breathe some new air into what has become a very claustrophobic little space. 

At the centre of the movie is Boris, a misanthrope with suicidal tendencies who rails against the rampant, non-stop stupidity around him. A physicist once considered for a Nobel Prize, Boris is a world-class hater, who propounds his nihilism straight to camera and who, I imagine, is actually meant to be viewed by us as crusty but loveable. The truth, however, is that, as played by the cult comic actor Larry David (of the much-praised TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm), Boris is the nasty type of man any sentient being would cross the road to avoid. He is casually and cuttingly rude to children and animals, cruel to old people and bitter about where he finds himself in life. 

He’s also, it would seem, a babe magnet. David is playing the Woody persona here and despite his physical plainness and egocentrism, he manages to attract the at-first unwelcome attentions of Melody, a stray but very appealing young runaway from the South (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s sleeping rough outside his apartment (he’s already separated from his beautiful, accomplished therapist wife). 

He lets her stay, she adores him for his abrasive erudition, she falls in love with him and they get married. This is all very Woody of course: from Manhattan to Husbands and Wives, the director who made a career out of mocking his neurotic shortcomings somehow always ended up as a heroic lust-object for very young women — women who, in real life of course, wouldn’t have let him near them. 

Boris and Melody’s Pygmalion set-up is disrupted by the arrival of Marietta and John, Melody’s dysfunctional, right-wing, God-fearing parents — red rags to Boris’s bull. The Big Apple works its Democrat-tinged brand of magic and these uptight red-necks are duly liberated — Marietta is transformed into a Greenwich Village bohemian, John discovers long-buried desires. It all ends rather sweetly and neatly. There is somebody for everybody, it seems to be saying, even if time, chance and pure coincidence have to play a far bigger part than we would like them to. Along the way it certainly offers a few small pleasures: as Marietta, Patricia Clarkson steals each of her scenes with expert comic timing, there is a great retro soundtrack, including Groucho Marx’s famous rendition of Hello, I Must be Going, and in Henry Cavill, who plays Melody’s young suitor Randy, we have what must be the best-looking young actor in films today. There are also a couple of good one-liners, for old time’s sake. 

Why then did such a small, seemingly inoffensive movie leave a rather nasty taste in the mouth? I pondered this as I left the screening. First, I thought it was the condescending treatment of the parents as objects of humour that had irritated me. But no: to be fair, they were given some of the funnier lines and as characters were actually portrayed as warmer and wittier than those around them. Then I thought, well, perhaps it was the fact that Boris was allowed to remain as ghastly as when we first met him; no transformational story arc for him. But then, I had to admit to myself that it couldn’t have worked any other way: a nicer Boris would have looked like a terrible cop-out. Finally, it dawned on me. It was simply that I felt completely let down. Grab love with both hands when it presents itself: had we gone through all those years, all those films, all that angst, for this? 

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