Let me preface this by saying: Don't nobody love Woody Allen more than me (at least in California). Regardless of my devotion to this man, there was something mildly disappointing about his latest film Whatever Works. And I think that something was the fact that Woody has maintained the same three gimmicks in all forty of his films: Older, undeniably unattractive man is somehow able to be with a younger, much better looking woman, Jewish guilt galore, and the abnormal fear of death. All three characteristics were present and accounted for in film #40.
Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a name that fits right in with Allen's past nebbish characters (Alvy Singer, Isaac Davis, Mickey Sachs, et. al.), is the penultimate necrophobic. Waking up in the middle of the night screaming, "I'm dying, I'm dying!" is not an uncommon practice for Boris. When his wife assures him, "No, you're not," he replies, "But I'm going to." That is the fundamental thesis of the film: Death is imminent and there is nothing that can be done to curtail it. In many ways, it's not unlike Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. This theme, this reality is something Mr. Allen has struggled with throughout his life. Luckily for American audiences, he has always been able to explore this in a comedic manner so that people don't heave themselves into oncoming traffic after seeing one of his films.
Another signature of Woody Allen that is exerted is having Boris frequently talk into the camera. It is in this way that we are introduced to him and in this way that he tells us how he came to be married to a girl, barely in her twenties, who ran away from a nondescript town in Mississippi (or was it Georgia? I don't know, the Bible Belt all melds into one state for me). Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) enters Boris' life after he has resigned himself to waiting for death in solitude (his failed suicide attempt of jumping out the window has left him both crippled and wary of trying again). He takes her in begrudgingly, warning her that she can only stay until she finds a job.
Initially unfazed by Melodie's beauty, Boris is quick to rate her "a 3, at best," but gradually warms to her charms once he realizes how jealous he is when she goes on a date with someone to see Anal Sphincter at Webster Hall. Figuring, since they live together, they might as well get married, Boris and Melodie manage to get through a year of marital bliss until the first little hiccup presents itself: Melodie's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), finds her and tells her she's going to live in New York now that Melodie's father has left her for her best friend. Marietta's interference in Boris and Melodie's previously unhindered marriage quickly takes shape when an aspiring actor named Randy Lee James expresses an interest in Melodie to her mother. From there, Marietta becomes adept at manufacturing chance meetings between the two.
Boris' attachment to Melodie starts to concern her when she admits to herself how attracted she is to Randy. In the midst of all of this, Marietta has transformed herself into an archetypical artist of 1960s Greenwich Village: Dressing in black, creating erotic art exhibitions, and living in a menage a trois. The arrival of Melodie's father merely adds to the screwball comedy nature of the story.
Larry David's portrayal of a man totally disgusted and disillusioned with life and the sublimely stupid people around him who seem to be okay with it is the strong suit of the film. The main flaw with the story is how contradictory the ending is to its message. Woody Allen is not a man afraid to slap you in the face with a sobering conclusion. Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cassandra's Dream, and Interiors are all evidence of that. Which is why I have to question what possessed him to be a bit safe with this one. Who can say? Maybe he decided the audience would already be depressed enough with the recession, the joblessness, the threat of a nuclear crisis, et cetera. But all of those issues, in some form or another, have been around each time he has determined to conclude a script on a realistic note. The only other answer may be, I fear, the worst: This tour de force of cynicism and acerbic wit has grown soft with old age. Or maybe Soon-Yi put the vacuum down for a second and gave him some (de)constructive notes.