August 24, 2009

'Whatever' is Right: New Allen Movie Disappoints

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This article was originally published online on Jul. 8

The signature opening credit style is there, with the same white font on the same black screen, the same ragtime music playing over the names Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe. One can make out the comfortable old tropes, and one sometimes thinks one recognizes signs of life. But one is wrong. Whatever Works, the new Woody Allen movie starring Larry David, is the bleating deathpang of a towering auteur style gone stale, and a powerful argument that, if your choice for a leading role says he can’t act, you should believe him.
It would be pointless and painful to examine the ragged plotting and the fuzzy characters in this film, and yet, like Humbert Humbert describing Mrs. Haze, one must get it over with. The cast is led by David’s Boris Yellnikoff, a sort of grade-schooler’s dream of a genius — armed with classical music and a Harvard hoodie, Boris is both an existential nihilist and a secular humanist, all while dabbling in string theory. David plays a less funny version of several Allen heroes, New York intellectuals who dread life and death with equal panache. His masterful spontanaeity in Curb Your Enthusiasm is replaced by a script-bound stiffness, and his comedy is reduced to anger; we really believe he’s the kind of guy who’d go around calling people “cretins.”
For some reason or another, Boris refuses to sleep with young, half-naked Melodie Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), the beautiful and dopey southerner cooped up in his apartment. That is, he refuses until, for some reason or another, the two get married. Melodie is a less funny version of Amanda from Mighty Aphrodite, and she, like Amanda, eventually chooses youth over intellect, leaving Boris for actor Leo Brockman (Conleth Hill). By the end of the film, Melodie’s fundamentalist mother is an avant-garde photographer living in sin with two men, her father has embraced his repressed homosexuality, and Boris is in love with the woman who broke his latest would-be suicidal fall.
“He really is one of the most indulgent filmmakers.” So says the pretentious Columbia professor who stands in line behind Alvy Singer in Annie Hall. The line is about Fellini; since when did it become so true of Allen? The answer, of course, is since always. His entire career, or at least the pre-Scarlett Johannsen part, has been a co-opting of cultures into a nebbish uber-model: his first film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, is a redubbing of a Japanese action movie into a search for an egg salad recipe. And that’s precisely Allen’s charm, or at least it used to be. But it used to be funny.
An otherwise-excellent article in New York Magazine trumpets Whatever Works as the “missing film” from Allen’s early career. We cannot help but panic at such a declaration, we Allen fans who’ve manically insulated ourselves in the earlies and the funnies, who’ve lived a tangle of grafted one-liners (surely there must be others!). We with our Buick-sized bugs and forgotten mantras, our second-favorite organs and our Black Studies programs and our “I don’t speak French. How about Hebrew?” It is for us, for the fellow-sufferer, that I review this bitter eulogy (can anyone ever write for anyone else?).
We’ve been indulgent, too, and it’s catching up to us. We could abstain from the one about tennis and the one about Barcelona, sure. But when we saw that Allen’s newest stars the postmodern potzer whose series revisits the California scenes from Annie Hall, we knew our holding-out days were over. Oh, we braced ourselves for the worst, especially after seeing the trailers. But we were as powerless as Boris all along, and maybe we were always as angry. For we knew, even from our windowless apartment under the Coney Island coaster, that the cloistered charade was dying, “not today, but eventually.” It exited neither balding veral nor distinguished gray, and it will not be replaced, no matter what Seth Rogen and Andy Samberg have to say about the matter.
One of the best lines of Allen’s career comes at the end of Sleeper, when Miles Monroe muses on sex and death, the universe’s only two certainties. “Each comes once in my life,” he says, “but at least after death I’m not nauseous.” Miles wasn’t talking about stylistic death, about the nauseating stench of a beloved skeleton with the organs eaten clear through. The only real comedy in Whatever Works, which is full of not-so-cheeky fourth-wall breaks, is its tremendous and unintentional meta-joke. In his opening monologue, Boris tells the audience, “this is not the feel-good movie of the year, so if you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage.” He’s right. So why didn’t we? Why did we put ourselves through the movie in the first place? Why do we still obsess over a flame which went out before we were born? We are the heartbroken, but we’ll not let love die — we need it for the eggs. They’re all we have left.