The worst thing about Woody's latest is Larry David. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, the improvisational Seinfeld vet has proven comically adept at playing himself, but now we know he can't play anyone else—and certainly not Woody Allen. The two come out of very different traditions in Jewish humor. For the first half of Whatever Works, David is downright awful: You can see him stuttering, struggling to stall so he can remember the script. Furthermore, his stiff and unconvincing line readings of Allen's idiosyncratic dialogue ring false (much as David's writing suffered coming out of Steven Weber's mouth in Sour Grapes). And it's impossible to buy the crusty Costanza-model as a Nobel-level physicist with a knack for literary allusion. That schlemiel?
Like many Allen movies over the last decade, the sharp script suffers without the writer in front of the camera, reciting his own lines. David, instead, fills the proverbial "Woody Allen role": Here, it's Boris, a risible misanthropist, a pessimistic neurotic (like many Woody protagonists before him) whose rancor extends beyond the characters to the audience; in misguided direct-address, Boris berates our mouth-breathing idiocy in the first reel. (If nothing else, David nails the nastiness, which would have been a stretch for the director.) The character, originally written for Zero Mostel—whose 1977 death reveals the script's age—bears a sharp resemblance to Max von Sydow's intolerant artist in Hannah and Her Sisters; Allen, of course, repeats himself often. But with a grumpy Jew rather than a dour Swede in the role, it becomes a comic part—and works best as a minor one.
The film picks up as it largely abandons David and his kvetching cohorts—like Broadway Danny Rose's Carnegie Deli crowd paraded through a movie in which they don't belong—and refocuses on Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a Southern runaway and bubbly, unguarded nymphet who shacks up with Boris when he finds her outside his exposed-brick downtown duplex, begging for food. Boris is eventually reduced to a wise-cracking observer, a snarky one-man chorus—at which David excels—while Melodie's parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, boisterously exasperated) and John (Ed Begley Jr.), arrive one-by-one, initiating a jumble of romantic entanglements that overtake the film.
Repressed Southerners, Melodie and her family learn to loosen up once they hit the Big Apple; Allen cheekily posits New York City as a magically transformative locale, a metropolis that by its very nature opens up squares to their true sexual natures. It's a bit condescending to red staters, like Everyone Says I Love You's Republican-by-brain-damage, but New Yorkers who've missed their cine-laureate during his half-decade of European exile shouldn't want it any other way.
As it unfolds, Whatever Works assumes an increasing note of poignancy, becoming a quasi-optimistic story about securing whatever little love you can in this fakakta world. The idea is a bit trite, but as Boris says, "sometimes a cliché is finally the best way to make one's point." This late in his career, Allen might err in his casting, but ultimately his storytelling is sound. The man knows what works.