Let’s just say that as an actor, Larry David is a great comedy writer. His declamatory line readings on Curb Your Enthusiasm make you appreciate how well Jason Alexander channeled David’s neuroses on Seinfeld. Yet David is a surprisingly serviceable Woody Allen surrogate in Whatever Works, which opens Friday areawide. It finds Allen on New York home turf after a string of European-set movies. Casting about for an idea, Allen dusted off a script he wrote in the ’70s for Zero Mostel. The great Zero being long dead, we have David as Boris Yellnikov, a misanthropic ex-physicist who rants against everything from religion to love and dismisses most humans as “incompetent morons” and “inchworms.” The persona is as familiar as a cranky old friend, and while Woody still inhabits it best, David is far from the worst fit — that honor would go to Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, hands down.
The story is a funny, often hilarious, farce centering on this hypochondriacal hermit who spends his days waxing philosophical with his friends (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks, Lyle Kanouse) and teaching chess to children, whom he insults mercilessly. One night, Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty Southern teenage runaway, appears at the doorstep of his dismal apartment. Boris reluctantly takes her in and schools her in his cynical attitudes. Improbably, she falls for him; he marries her, and her honeyed optimism is tonic for him, until her mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), arrives, her simple Bible Belt faith providing a natural target for Boris’ derision. Seduced by Manhattan, Marietta transforms herself into a bohemian artiste, and when her husband (Ed Begley Jr.) comes looking for her, he finds a new identity as well.
As always in Allen’s romances, the young girl wearies of her neurotic older mate, and several un-couplings and re-couplings occur. The redemptive finale, reminiscent of Hannah and Her Sisters, is unexpectedly uplifting. We could quibble for days over Allen’s persistent theme of older men paired with young girls, and admittedly, it’s a strange fixation in art and life. Some have still not forgiven him, but I think his view is well expressed by the movie’s title. *** 1/2