Whatever Works' title is the mantra of inveterate curmudgeon Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), as well as that of Woody Allen, whose latest – and first to be set in his beloved Manhattan since 2004's Melinda and Melinda – hews as tightly to his trademark preoccupations as Of Mice and Men's Lenny clung to his rabbit. Casting David makes sense, as the Curb Your Enthusiasm star's crotchety on-screen persona more than slightly recalls that of Allen's. Yet rather than an inspired meeting of kindred minds, their collaboration does little except reinforce the notion that Allen's creative well has long since run dry, his films now split into either inert, heavy-handed, detached spectacles of pretty people doing naughty things in foreign locales (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), or leaden comedic larks in which notable names embody Allen's archetypal kvetching role.
An erudite string-theory professor and all-around misanthrope with suicidal tendencies and an extensive vocabulary, David's Boris grumps and grouches like countless other Allen protagonists, right down to his guiding philosophy that the world is a cold, random place full of regret and misery, and that any rare chances at happiness should be seized.
Allen wastes no time repeating himself, kickstarting Whatever Works by having Boris break the fourth wall à la Annie Hall to address the audience. As has become the filmmaker's trademark – see Vicky Cristina's expository opening narration – the subsequent monologue spells out everything vital about character and theme, a graceless device that saps the forthcoming action of virtually any surprise. Of course, the fact that Allen's tale is merely a hybrid of Annie Hall, Manhattan and his clunky late-career funny trifles (Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending) is also responsible for the encompassing sense of familiarity, though such derivation might be more easily ignorable if genuine mirth was in supply. Alas, with the onus on one-liners to prop up a tale that Allen has regurgitated countless times before, all we're given is David delivering a stream of putdowns so elaborately phrased and rapidly articulated that, even as they're exiting his mouth, seem stuck to the page. David's gift for energizing slander with dripping disdain is in full effect, and helps energize at least a few of the myriad bon mots provided him by the script. Yet Allen's voice remains too distinctively idiosyncratic to sound natural coming from others, a situation that casts into sharp relief David's status as merely another of the director's subpar proxies.
After Boris regales viewers with his initial The World Stinks and These Are The Things I Hate speech, the plot grinds into action, propelling smug know-it-all Boris into a chance encounter with homeless beauty Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a naïve Southern belle whom he reluctantly agrees to let stay at his ramshackle apartment. This being a Woody Allen film, the pairing of a balding, physically unfit old sour puss and a lithe, pretty, skimpily dressed 20-something girl can only mean cross-generational love, or as it's also known in most of the world, preposterous yuck. Whatever Works sexualizes Melodie via pubescent pigtails, body-clinging nightgowns and matching knee-high socks in an effort – once Melodie falls for Boris and, shortly thereafter, marries him – to gross out its audience while simultaneously eliciting their disbelieving chuckles. They're the least believable on-screen couple of this, or any other, year, a turgid male-fantasy-writ-inane that, coming from Allen, is so stale that it would register as self-parody if not for the film's straight face. But hey, whatever works!
Apparently because its old-fart, young-hottie relationship wasn't lackluster enough, however, Whatever Works also sees fit to express its core value via broad lefty sermonizing in the guise of Melodie's parents. Mom Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) is a prim-and-proper socialite who, upon leaving cheating husband John (Ed Begley Jr.), visits her daughter and is promptly transformed by the Big Liberal Apple into an arty photographer of nudes who strikes up a ménage-à-trois relationship with two men. When John arrives in Manhattan shortly thereafter, he too is altered, casting aside his NRA-supporting religiosity in favor of the homosexual lifestyle he'd long suppressed. Stuffy conservatives! If they only knew that finding and embracing happiness was more important than adhering to intolerant beliefs – and judging those who don't conform accordingly – the world would be one big, joyous Manhattan loft party populated by free-love hipsters! What's obnoxious about Allen's stereotype-mining reversals aren't the politics (though some will surely object) but their unimaginative moldiness. Then again, if Whatever Works confirms anything, it's that Allen is doggedly old-school, his cinema retrofitted with Dolby sound even as its stories and sentiments prove fit for a scratchy phonograph.