“Whatever Works” – A Pragmatic Fantasy – 3 & ½ popcorns

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

He, a bohemian New Yorker in his 60s, features himself a genius. She, a runaway from Mississippi, considers herself a dummy. But when they meet one fateful night and a May-September affair ensues, each learns their self-appraisals weren’t quite right. Written and directed by Woody Allen, the charming love story’s title and ethos is “Whatever Works.”

It’s a feature length paean to the getting-to-know-you process. The plot parameters and running diatribes that intersperse throughout the film are familiar. It’s classical Woody, again measuring the urban ethnic experience against the culture shock and star-spangled synergy that surely must accompany such liaisons. But the variation is delightfully nice.

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We guardedly cheer both lovers. Especially Boris Yellnikoff, the angry old man played by Larry David. At once a vociferous plaintiff and victim of all the world’s mysteries and unfairness, gosh knows the grinch needs a good epiphany, to put it politely. Heretofore, practically all the fun he had was ridiculing the kids he teaches chess to in the park.

Naturally, the divorcé  initially rails against the prospect of being a Chinatown-based version of Henry Higgins. The serendipitous occasion of finding love at this age goes against the physicist’s belief that everything is random, futile and meaningless. He has a limp from a suicide attempt to prove his conviction. But maybe he has met his match.

Melodie, if she isn’t laughing at Boris’s dyspeptic ravings, thinks it’s simply what you have to expect from a genius. After all, he would have won the Nobel Prize for Physics were it not for politics…so he relates. In any case, corn pone winsome and pretty, Evan Rachel Wood’s Melodie St. Ann Celestine thinks her new beau is just the cat’s pajamas.

He’s surely more interesting than Bobby Joe Whoever back in South Podunk—her first love who later gained celebrity for catching the biggest catfish in the lake. “Oh, I was wondering what became of that fish, “ reflects Boris. But truth is, Melodie tired of the provincialism and the endless series of beauty pageants she was subjected to by Momma.

So now she’s become a willing audience, accompanying Boris on what she deems are his perspicacious flights of fancy. They keep house in his brick-lined walkup, meant to be a hovel, but a pickled-wood dream to anyone with a decorator’s eye for Rive Gauche a la NYC. And while he still rants, there seems to be a slight lilt in his negative zeitgeist.

But then, as Boris himself will tell you in one of the narrative stage whispers that embellish from start to finish, this is too good to be true. Hence, the complication in Mr. Allen’s beautifully written three-act comedy comes to bear…two pronged, no less. The first is a challenge from a younger man. Secondly, Ma and Pa come a callin’ from Dixie.

Patricia Clarkson is appropriately over the top as Melodie’s mom, Marietta, who, when she suddenly arrives on Boris’s doorstep, informs her fugitive daughter that Mr. Celestine has absconded and run off with her best friend. She instantly dislikes Boris. He expected no less. The refugee from a Tennessee Williams play sets out to obliterate the tryst.

But then, in fiction some of the worst laid plans of narrow-minded meddlers are apt to go astray, especially if their heads are turned by the bright lights of the big city. The upshot is whimsically ironic. Of course, arriving in Gotham hat in hand, just in time to see Marietta’s Big Apple transformation, is Ed Begley, Jr.’s truant spouse. She left him.

Verily the NRA supporter comes spouting his remorse, which soon evolves into a major, life questioning confusion. Mr. Begley is terrific as the Alex in Wonderland who proceeds to prove that he, too, can benefit from a crash course in self-discovery. It’s all part of the long held conceit often found in Woody’s work: Manhattan as moral crucible.

Thus the auteur extraordinaire, back from a several-movie hiatus in Europe where the filming is cheaper, reconvenes his romance with New York City. Oh, indeed the roving streetscape is nowhere near as extensive as in previous films. Still, just a loving shot into the al fresco patio of a restaurant reminds us of his special connection with the old town.

Mr. David, in what has come to be known as the Woody role, is our tour guide and philosopher. Opening an emotional vein to us despite his anti-social protestations to the contrary, he offers a convivial, intellectual and hilarious visit to the life experience. Yes, he is a better kvetcher than actor. But in the case of “Whatever Works,” it works just fine.

“Whatever Works,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Woody Allen and stars Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Begley, Jr. Running time: 92 minutes


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