Take Woody Allen's 'Whatever Works,' released last summer to some of the worst reviews of his career. "[A] toxic, contemptuous, unforgivably unfunny bagatelle," wrote the critic for the Washington Post. Playing off its title, the New York Times critic concluded that "None of it works. Or it works too hard. Whatever." Likewise, the Wall Street Journal summed it up as "Whatever works doesn't." I don't understand movie critics, even though I was one for 30 years. Sometimes, they just blow it.
Take Woody Allen's 'Whatever Works,' released last summer to some of the worst reviews of his career. "[A] toxic, contemptuous, unforgivably unfunny bagatelle," wrote the critic for the Washington Post. Playing off its title, the New York Times critic concluded that "None of it works. Or it works too hard. Whatever." Likewise, the Wall Street Journal summed it up as "Whatever works doesn't."
Most of the negative reviews contrasted the world-weary Allen cliches in the film to his resurgent originality in a string of four movies made since 2005 in Europe. They also mentioned, as they should have, that the film was from an updated version of a script Allen wrote in his 'Annie Hall' period as a starring vehicle for the great stage comedian Zero Mostel. What a fine movie that might have been then ...
Ah, baloney. Those negative reviews, plus the fact that I was already retired from the critic game, kept me from seeing 'Whatever Works' during its short theatrical run. In fact, until this morning, 'Whatever Works' was the only Allen movie I hadn't seen. But prompted by glowing reviews submitted by "users" to IMDB, I called it up for instant viewing on Netflix, and 92 minutes later my Allen fatigue was gone.
Yes, it is a bagatelle, as most of Allen's movies are. With rare literary-minded exceptions ('Interiors,' 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'), Allen's filmography is made up of movie equivalents of short stories, or -- at his most whimsical -- of the humor columns he's written for the New Yorker's 'Shouts and Whispers' feature. But "unfunny" his latest movie isn't. I haven't had more laughs from anything he's done since 1997's 'Deconstructing Harry,' which it bears some resemblance to. That is, its main character is a misanthropic narcissist with, to borrow a phrase, a toxic and contemptuous world view.
Allen has played with his philosophically bent alter ego many times and was compelled by age to stop doing it after 'Deconstructing Harry.' For the character to work, he has to be matched with an intellectually naive woman -- and when the 62-year-old Allen, already condemned for his romance with the adopted woman he helped raise with Mia Farrow, locked lips with then 34-year-old Elizabeth Shue, it creeped a lot of people out. One wag put it this way, referring to the image of an eyeball slashing in a 1929 Luis Bunuel classic: "I'd rather watch the eyeball scene in 'Un chien andalou' than watch Woody Allen kiss Elizabeth Shue."
Larry David, about the same age as Allen was when he made 'Harry,' assumes the familiar Allen protagonist in 'Whatever Works' and it's a clear case of typecasting. As fans of David's hilarious HBO series 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' have long known, David's real personality seems to be a living incarnation of Allen's alter ego and one equally funny. Unlike Kenneth Branagh and others who've mimicked Allen's mannerisms while playing versions of this character, David gets to be himself and I don't care how rude and insensitive he gets, I love him.
Naturally, David's Boris Yelnikoff, a one-time physics whiz who spends his time bad-mouthing the universe an all its inhabitants between suicide attempts, is matched with a beautiful young woman, in this case a really young Evan Rachel Wood as a southern runaway who moves into Boris' New York flat and eventually marries him. This time, Allen spares us a kiss -- a reference to Viagra gives a clear impression of the relationship -- and allows this cranky geezer to discover a different kind of passion.
No spoilers here, in case I've convinced you to give the movie a try, but if you agree with me that you don't have to love a protagonist to love a movie, and with apologies to my former colleagues, 'Whatever Works' does work.