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In Woody Allen’s latest film, Larry David plays Boris, an aging, neurotic misanthrope who builds himself up by insulting others – even the kids he teaches to play chess.

2 out of 4 stars


Whatever Works

  • Written and directed by Woody Allen
  • Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson
  • Classification: 14A

In Whatever Works, Woody Allen's 40th film as a director, and his first back in New York after five years of shooting in Europe, he returns to a familiar kind of protagonist, a surrogate version of himself.

The character is played by another comedy titan, Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and star of the semi-improvised HBO hit, Curb Your Enthusiasm ). The character's name is Boris Yellnikoff, a neurotic late-middle-aged misanthrope who gets involved with a naive, much younger woman. Don't stop me - but you may have heard this one before.

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Whatever Works was written 30 years ago with Zero Mostel in mind for the lead role. It's one of Allen's talky trifles, where everyone seems to stand around in front of New York buildings speaking in prosy-sounding dialogue. But there's one promisingly provocative innovation: The main character is not even remotely endearing. Goodbye Mr. Nice Nebbish; hello Mr. Putz.

"I love a good hater," Samuel Johnson once said, and you wait with some relish to see where Allen might take this idea. Boris is a former physics professor who's convinced of his own genius. He hangs out with an inexplicably patient trio of friends (Michael McKean, Lyle Kanouse and Adam Brooks) and rants about his superiority to everyone around him. Boris's "huge worldview" includes the ability to see, and directly address the movie audience, even if he considers us just another group of ignoramuses.

Larry David, typically wearing T-shirts and plaid Bermuda shorts, attacks the role of Boris, though he occasionally barks out the dialogue through a half-smirk, as if he can't quite take his own character seriously. Like a modern-day Richard the Third, Boris condemns others while swinging about in a pronounced limp. In a brief flashback, we learn the injury was the result of a botched suicide attempt after his unsympathetic first wife begged him to "spare me your sophomoric rants."

You can identify with her. Boris's vocabulary largely consists of insults targeting the mental limitations of others, including the children to whom he teaches chess. His favourites (cretin, mindless zombie, moron, sub-mental, inchworm, vermin or pygmy) are repeated so often, they start to feel like verbal habits, and not unlike the de rigueur Allen references to the expanding universe, anxiety attacks, existentialism and emergency rooms that feel like dialogue filler.

For all his sourness, Boris believes he has some wisdom to impart, in the form of a story that illustrates his motto: "Whatever works." It starts when a willowy, blond teenage runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) ends up on his doorstep and he takes her in.

A small-town Mississippi gal in short shorts and a T-shirt that says "Smile," Melodie has little formal education - though a few beauty pageants - under her belt, and she's just the tonic Boris needs. She doesn't get his insults (he describes her as "a character out of Faulkner, not unlike Benjy"), but is unconventional enough to develop a crush on him. They marry, which seems utterly inexplicable until we meet her parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.).

A pair of garishly dressed Jesus-praisin' yokels from Mississippi, Marietta and John represent all the awfulness Melodie is fleeing and everything Boris fears and despises. But, the sour little joke is on him. Marietta, the hick harridan, gets seduced by Manhattan bohemia and seduces back, transforming into a beret-topped, sexually free artiste. John, too, discovers there's more to life than hunting, football and the National Rifle Association. Even Melodie smartens up enough to recognize that Boris may not be as wise as he lets on.

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As Whatever Works creaks along, the attention-getting nastiness of the first half dissipates and it turns into just another Woody Allen overacted sex farce. Of all the insults hurled about in the film, perhaps the worst is its pandering conclusion. What exactly does Allen take his audience for? A bunch of mindless zombies?

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