There’s a brief sequence somewhere along the middle of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works that is just about the most perfect scene imaginable in a film comedy. In it, a professor of philosophy at Columbia (played by the Irish actor Conleth Hill, flawlessly impersonating a New Yorker) and a Southern-fried matron named Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, in the ripest, most delectable role she has had onscreen to date) have gotten together at his place for drinks. Earlier, the auburn-curled, hot pink-clad, Mississippi-accented Marietta, bursting into the movie like a parody of William Inge archetypes, has announced that, in response to her husband’s infidelity, “I turned to Jesus in a deeper way than I ever have!” She clutches, as proof, a copy of the Holy Bible in one hand and a glass of darkly stained hard liquor in the other. Marietta might caricature a certain flower of Southern womanhood, yet as Allen conceives it and as Clarkson portrays her, the send-up is absolutely spot-on. At a subsequent lunch with her errant daughter Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), Marietta preaches her deeply held beliefs (“Abortion is murder!”) yet manages to magnetize the salt-and-pepper lion-maned Leo (Hill) all the same. He admires her breasts, her long legs, and acting on the notion that “a woman is easier to get in bed if she’s a member of the National Rifle Association,” he asks her out.
Listening to the Stan Getz recording of Jobim’s “Desafinado” in Leo’s apartment, Marietta shows him her Kodak snapshots of Melodie as a child. To her, the objects are one thing: cute pix of her daughter as a darlin’ baby girl. To Leo, they’re something else entirely. He praises the texture and composition of Marietta’s photographic eye; he speaks, to his guest’s bemused wonder, of the images’ “haunting quality,” which she, in turn, quietly regards as “a gift the good Lord Jesus gave me.” The moment becomes a lovely meeting of opposites, and I don’t think it had such an entrancing effect on me merely because I’m a photographer or because I’m a born and bred Georgia cracker: there’s something understatedly brilliant in how the acting, writing, and directing merge to create a scene of two persons having the same conversation yet talking about entirely different issues. And there’s another level on which it feels at one with the zeitgeist. I saw Whatever Works in late June during a particularly exciting week for the Republicans—Sanford had disappeared (and probably ought to have remained incognito), but more to the point here, it was a few days after Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) had adamantly refused to take a meeting with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. He already knew he was going to vote against her confirmation, he said, so why bother? A commenter on one of the political blogs got right to the heart of things when he or she rhetorically asked: Is Inhofe afraid that he would like her? That, if they actually met, he might find he and Sotomayor shared some common ground?
Whatever Works is an infinitely savvier movie than it’s receiving credit for in the mainstream press. Although laced with deliciously hostile lines, such as the above-referenced NRA one, Allen’s 30-something-year-old script has been retrofitted into a bouquet of calendula blossoms to the culture wars. There’s a nod to Obama (“a black man can get elected to the White House—he still can’t get a cab in New York City”) yet most of Whatever Works plays like Woody’s response to what we might call, the other names for it notwithstanding, Palin’s America: this is how dumb, redneck behavior looks to a septuagenarian New York intellectual. And when Ed Begley Jr., in a sensationally good performance as Melodie’s conservative Christian father, enters the film in its final third, dropping to his knees to beg for Jesus’s forgiveness in the flat that his daughter shares with the atheist Boris (Larry David), the movie transcends its origins as a May-December infatuation between a misanthrope and a beauty pageant contestant and emerges as a well-aimed pie-in-the-face to right-wing hypocrisy. Begley uses his voice in an exciting way; he doesn’t just apply an all-purpose Southern accent, he puts some butter in the sauce of his already husky timbre, speaking with a slight mush-mouth effect, rendering his effusions to Jesus or his lambasting homosexuality as “a sin against God” as deliriously rich as those elected clowns who parade their religion onto the Senate floor. Begley doesn’t have anywhere near the screen time of David or Clarkson or Wood, yet he wastes not a second in springing to life a fully realized creation.
As Melodie St. Ann Celestine (is the surname an homage to the longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley?), Evan Rachel Wood brings something new to the Allen repertoire. I liked the young Ms. Wood well enough in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, although, given the disparity in the roles they were playing, she could not help being overshadowed by the flashier Nikki Reed. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for her sensuously witty turn as a Mississippi runaway finding and losing and finding herself within the Woody terrain of a New York never-neverland. Melodie may be Allen’s most sympathetic, most touching heroine; certainly, she is without peer in his long line of leading ladies. If Téa Leoni, in the underrated Hollywood Ending, proved to be Allen’s fiercest onscreen match-up since Diane Keaton, Wood fulfills the promise that the worthless Scarlett Johansson never delivered. She has a succulent comic delivery, such as when fresh-off-the-farm Melodie declares her crush on the vituperative Boris (“I don’t like normal, healthy men. I like you”) yet she’s loveliest in a moment of romantic confusion, drawing on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in order to fight her way out of the clouds. If her accent may be a trace over the top, Wood, a North Carolinian, even so comes across as more authentically Southern than the overblown Amy Adams in Phil Morrison’s empty set of postures, Junebug.
Like Marietta, Melodie’s pure caricature, but in a manner that feels unerringly accurate. I’ve known this girl, or some variation of her. It’s amazing how well Allen nails Southern stereotypes, especially in an early scene in which Melodie describes to Boris her first sexual experience as “a nice moment behind the tent at the fish fry,” yet one that’s an “unforgivable sin,” negating her chances of getting into Heaven. I grew up having a similarly absurd notion of sin drilled into me by Nixon/Reagan-worshipping, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, so Melodie’s fears didn’t feel the slightest bit exaggerated. I see nothing but well-observed truth in what Allen holds up for target practice. (And it isn’t at all surprising that the generic, Yankee reviewers who’ve dismissed this film have failed to divine anything. Such critics of limited range remind me of the ghosts in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense: They see what they want to see, which isn’t enough to snatch the veil of their myopia.)
Much of Whatever Works unfurls in hypnotically long takes, as in the late-night conversations between Melodie and Boris that capture the feel of after hours, soul-baring sessions. Allen’s occasional rapid cuts, such as going from night to day, from a soft ballad to a Dixieland band with banjo and brass, in the transition to Melodie’s new job as a dogwalker (more precisely, the dogs are walking her), are equally well brought off. Allen’s direction has a taut assurance, a lean quality absent from his work for some time. Whatever Works has none of the sluggish spots that marred the worthwhile Cassandra’s Dream or that dominated Match Point and Melinda and Melinda. This is as good a moment as any to address the following: the conventional wisdom on Allen films of the past decade has, typically, been dead wrong. His most ambitious work of the new century, Anything Else, was also his most widely derided. Conversely, he’s accrued seemingly endless accolades for Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point, both of which I consider audience-pandering dreck. Whatever Works lacks the protean highs and symphonic reach of Anything Else; it’s a smaller-scaled chamber piece, yet more consistently pleasurable. There are no dud lines about Sara Lee cheesecake or “new” electric can-openers to gum up the proceedings, but nevertheless Larry David’s Boris, as scathingly vicious as he presents himself to us, can’t begin to compete with the nightmare woman of Christina Ricci’s Amanda. (Anything Else “failed,” I think, because neither critics nor audiences were quite ready for such a clinically on-target portrayal of feminine soullessness, at least not coming from Woody Allen.)
The tête-à-têtes here with David and Wood run the gamut from brutal to wistful, often within the same scene. “What is that song?” Boris asks of a plaintive tune hailing from an old movie on television as it wafts through their apartment. “They played that song the first time I went out with Jessica,” he says, remembering his ex-wife. The melody, in a silvery, mournful orchestration, lingers on throughout the hectoring Boris subjects his roommate to. At some point in the slow, minimalist waltz, a cornet solo enters over the strings—it’s timed to be at the precise instant that Melodie admits her attraction to Boris, and Allen’s low-key audacity is breathtaking. In a later scene, Boris pops in a CD; the same lushly romantic song plays once more. Allen gives it ample space under the dialogue, so that we get to know the sinuous lines of its yearning motifs and, like Boris, to fall under its spell. The song turns out to be James P. Johnson’s “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” as recorded by Jackie Gleason’s orchestra with the sublime Bobby Hackett on cornet. (Allen has used Gleason and Hackett to evocative effect before, notably on the soundtrack to Alice, where their rendition of “I Remember You” underscored Mia Farrow’s ghostly reunion with a long-dead lover, personified by Alec Baldwin.) This time, Melodie, who has absorbed Boris’s pessimism and somehow made his negativity uniquely her own, filtered through a prism of Southern belle, honey-bunch wiles, tipsily complains that friends her own age “like everything.” She faults them for not having Boris’s astringent critical faculties; this isn’t only one of the funniest aspects of Whatever Works, it’s also true-to-life that this gullible girl would wind up being influenced by the man who takes her in off the streets, regardless of how inappropriate the borrowings are.
A similar alchemy occurs with David playing the Allen stand-in: he prattles off Allen’s machine-gun one-liners, yet David makes them his own, the great, forceful rhythms of his baritone voice a natural conduit for such lovely rants. The stunning opening sequence, a stand-up routine of Boris directly addressing, taunting, challenging us, reaches an apocalyptically gleeful pitch when he excoriates the NPR-liberal phonies among us for blithely ingesting the horrors in the news, then “you turn the page and finish your eggs from the free-range chickens!” David’s tumultuous spewing of these lines, in tandem with his jostling movements up the summer sidewalks of lower Manhattan, are delightfully suggestive of a prizefight.
The movie isn’t without a couple of lapses. Why does Boris—who rails against clichés in speech—believe that Melodie will have her musical horizons expanded by listening to, of all things, Beethoven’s dead-tired warhorse Fifth Symphony? Surely, someone of Boris’s exactitude has more discriminating taste than that—or is this one of Allen’s private jokes, that Boris isn’t really so advanced? The cinematographer Harris Savides, who has done innovative work for Jonathan Glazer and Gus Van Sant, disappointingly doesn’t break any new ground here. Savides achieves an incandescent effect in a brief tracking shot of twilight settling over a marina, taking us across the harbor to lovers embracing by a houseboat in one majestic glide. Be that as it may, at a New Year’s Eve party, Savides’s camera goes gauzily—not purposefully—out of focus.
The actors, however, right down to the smallest roles, are exactly right. So engaging are John Gallagher Jr. and Henry Cavill, as potential distractions from Melodie’s admiration for Boris, that I wished their characters were taken further. The British Cavill, in particular, in a scene at an outdoor bazaar, is so unassumingly yet self-confidently handsome that he seems like a God. Still, it’s Clarkson who has the field day here. When I heard that she was going to work with Allen again, after the degrading role he saddled her with in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I couldn’t fathom why. But with Marietta, a real part to sink into, Clarkson exudes an irresistible comic élan; it’s hard not to love a middle-aged woman who bubbles and fizzes, “See ya, darlin’!” when a man asks her for a date. She’s just had her faith in herself, in her attractiveness, revalidated—and isn’t that enough for us, too?
House contributor N.P. Thompson publishes the site moviesintofilm.com, where he recently panned the Oscar-winning Japanese film Departures. Moreover, he photo blogs at WordPress.