Boris Yellnikoff is a neurotic, abusive, ageing Ney Worker and
Let me start again.
Boris Yellnikoff is a neurotic, abusive, ageing New Yorker and former quantum mechanic who spends his days lamenting the flaws of humanity at a handful of highly tolerant friends, teaching humiliation to his worm-brained junior chess students (and then their indignant parents), basically waiting out the days until death since his only previous attempt to bring it on early was a moderate failure. His regimented existence is seriously ruffled by the appearance on his doorstep of the beautiful Melodie St. Ann Celestine, a simpleton waif from the Deep South, undereducated but charmingly heartfelt, whom he reluctantly allows to sleep on his sofa as an alternative to an inevitable descent towards prostitution and violent murder. Running from a repressive Christian family in conflict with the kind of sexually liberated young adulthood claimed typical of teen-aged southern belles, Melodie is Boris’ perfect opposite: young to his old, sweet to his sour, light and light to his dark and heavy, and most of all dim to his painfully bright – for Boris was once almost nominated for a Nobel Prize (but not for “Best Film”). It turns out that their getting married sparks as many problems as at first it seems to solve.
Well now. The fact that this Woody Allen film centrally features an ageing neurotic wedding an impressionable woman-child just about old enough to be his granddaughter – this is true, but I’m not going to beat that old Woody drum right now, nor get onto the subject of Roman Polanski’s tom-toms either – suffice to say that everything is entirely consensual from start to finish, and all the ages are above board – some rather more than others, but – no. No. I’m going to admit right now that I laughed out loud several times during Whatever Works. As a piece of light entertainment it’s not bad or anything. The performances achieve what is required, the script about the same. So why is it that when it ended I was glad it was over and, as I walked home, I decided I didn’t like it well before I needed to fish for my keys?
First off, there is Larry David in the compulsory New York role of Allen Himself. On the surface you think, perfect – it’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, you know, all that hilarious neurosis but all pointed outwards, he even looks the part, it’s like Woody spitting instead of swallowing! Before settling in I was worried that David would be doing a straight impersonation of Allen, but what you get isn’t this, really. When Boris is abusing his victims, it’s Curb. When Boris is expounding his philosophy, on the other hand – and particularly during the interminable monologues to camera – it is Woody’s words but the delivery lacks snap, you don’t have to rush to keep up, and I started to find it boring. If David had done a straight impression of Allen I’m pretty sure I’d have liked it more.
Second, or maybe Still First, there is the fact that this is only Boris’ story because he’s dropped front and centre at the beginning and then proceeds to tell us as much, directly (while the people around him squint into camera and ask him who are you talking to, who, there’s no-one there, you so crazy, etc.). However, Boris isn’t really much of a protagonist in the Hollywood, character development sense of the word. Of course, this is Woodyholl, not Hollywood, and many would go to see this for exactly that reason – including me. Nothing makes my gorge churn more than the thought of sitting down to an hour-and-a-half of Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez or any other equivalent tripe… except that what Hollywood does do is character, even if the only development is from one cliché to another.
Here, on the other hand, we may not even get that. The only real change in Boris comes on the final, tidily-bowed Happy (New Year) Ending – but the less is true of almost every other character in the entire tale; to call them changeless clichés is to do no more than identify them with accuracy. Melodie is relentlessly dim-but-sweet, excepting occasional dim-but-wise moments which she doesn’t recognise even as they pass her lips. The charming, good-looking, right-for-her younger man is exactly that, with no cloudy lining to marr his silver suit of armour. The put upon friends would stand the chance of being more interesting than Boris but are rarely used as more than momentary foils for his opinionating. Which only leaves two: Melodie’s hyper-repressed mother and father.
Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr., like the cast in general, are absolutely fine in the roles – I have no gripes there. But of the entire ensemble only Marietta has anything like an inner journey, from a faith-praising shunned wife and mother (straight out of a telechurchathon, practically) to a beatniky drop-out artist with a taste for a bit of the extra. She is immediately the most interesting character, but to call for her to be developed into a lead would be a mistake – Marietta is simply a really good supporting character, lacking sufficiently strong leads to support. Her naughty hubby, by contrast, is nothing but a comedy mirror of her and as deep as a reflection – instantly obvious as a punchline from his first moment on screen, and lacking nothing when it comes to predictability when he sits down at that bar. Not that it isn’t funny – there are, let me say it again, laughs to be had throughout.
Yet taking the film as a whole I was unquestionably unsatisfied – especially by that finale. The touching on and wrapping up of each character in their changeless state – Melodie’s guh-huck stupid-cutie one-liner, boyfriend’s don’t worry dumbo kindness, and only mom and dad’s new life-style choices to cast transparent doubt on my argument. Most of all Boris, who is ready to send us off with one more into-camera homily about how you’ve got to embrace life to be happy – even though it was embracing death that apparently got him everything he wanted – while everyone squints at us, saying who are you talking to, who, there’s no-one there, you so crazy…
In the end, it comes down to that title – which really means Whatever Works For You. If loving life without thinking deeply makes you happy, do that. If being a grouchy bastard and making other people angry makes you happy, then do that. Certainly do with your genitals those things that make you happy, with whomever it will make happy too. Making Woody Allen films clearly makes Woody Allen happy, but more and more I’m finding that, outside of a few genuine laughs, watching Woody Allen films doesn’t do that much for me at all. As a philosophy of creative activity, doing “whatever works” isn’t that inspiring; it smacks a bit of settling for instead of striving after. I’m not saying it was bad; but in my little theatre of one, Whatever Works, Doesn’t.