Reality Check: Woody Being Woody

—by , July 13, 2009

In Praise of The Master’s Latest Opus, Whatever Works

Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever joy you can filch from this immense void of nothingness, whatever works.
—Boris Yellnikoff from Whatever Works

It was somewhere in the painful drudgery of penning an overview of a bogged down Health Care debate in Congress that I decided to chuck the entire thing and write about the new Woody Allen film, Whatever Works, instead. In a mind-numbingly prolific and brilliant career filled with several and varied celluloid masterworks (42 in 40 years), my favorite filmmaker, and an indelible influence as a writer and award-winning curmudgeon, has once again hit the mark. With Hollywood mired in a string of regurgitated formulaic schlock and even the independent sources beginning to repeat the same dark, gut-wrenching themes, Allen has continued to present a freshly consistent string of darkly funny, thought-provoking satires on the human condition and modern society at large.

From the opening salvo to the final soliloquy of Whatever Works the very spirit of what this space has represented for nearly a dozen years is unerringly portrayed in the form of one of Allen’s most hilariously nihilistic characters to date; Boris Yellnikoff, played with an overdose of toxic venom by the laconic Larry David, whose general flavor is summed up with “I am a man with a huge world view surrounded by microbes.”

Using the obliteration of the dramatic “fourth wall,” originated in Allen’s first true cinematic masterpiece, Annie Hall, 34 years ago, David repeatedly looks to the camera and unleashes his outrage at what he has determined from years of reality bombardment and a keen sense of prescience is a mindless, violent and depraved society of nitwits and suckers floating through an insipid series of failures as a race. But Yellnikoff’s tormented, self-proclaimed genius existence has rendered him an emotional cripple. He repeatedly attempts and fails at suicide, yet ironically fears death; waking up several times throughout the film shouting, “I’m dying!” When his wife, whom he eventually dumps of course, asks if she should call for an ambulance, he argues, “Not now, eventually!” and that the concept of not existing is “unacceptable!”

It is a theme Allen has mined many times before in Stardust Memories (1980) and Deconstructing Harry (1997), but not nearly as sharply contrasted to whatever happens around him. Allen beautifully juxtaposes Yellnikoff with his beloved New York, where people are alive, creative, romantic, and almost goofily optimistic in the face of his smarmy despair. It is no coincidence the protagonist subsists in a basement hovel imprisoned in the expanding corridors of China Town, an aging Jewish academic, railing against the failures of Western culture, politics, and art in the shadow of an emerging Eastern empire. Even when a young, naïve southern girl in the grand tradition of Eliza Doolittle winds up on his doorstep begging for sustenance, which eventually brings her overtly myopic Bible-thumping parents—all eventually embracing the city’s freeing Bohemian temptations and finding true happiness in self-realization—it has absolutely no affect on Yellnikoff, save for providing fodder for his condescending wise-cracks along the way.

And make no mistake about it; Whatever Works is Allen’s most political film. There have been polemic hints and jabs in his vast canon of work, whether his prose—last year’s heady and oft-hilarious Mere Anarchy—or 1983’s Zelig, but Whatever Works reeks of vicious slams on the NRA, the religious right, the giddy superciliousness of modern liberalism or just about any general philosophy. To his harrumphing friends, Yellnikoff, in the signature Larry David snide but lovably demented tone, blurts, “Democracy, socialism, or the teachings of Jesus, all great ideas with one undeniable flaw, they all assume the better nature of humanity, that if we allow people the freedom to make their own choices they will choose to be kind and generous and sympathetic.”

The other of Allen’s grand themes is on display in Whatever Works. The illusion and beauty of art; whatever the medium—its soothing elixir either masking the harsh realities of life—The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or acting as a dangerous narcotic that is no substitute for genuine emotion or a connection to the life experience, Celebrity (1998), Sweet And Lowdown (1999). But here it is not as obvious. Yellnikoff’s art is his lifestyle and worldview, which both serve as a convenient excuse to ignore human contact or engage in the simple pleasures of social interaction, in a way a twisted reflection of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip, “I want to make of my life itself a work of art.”

It is here where the casting of David as Yellnikoff is simple perfection. His legacy as co-creator of the torturous craziness in Seinfeld and his successful HBO stint with the consistently amusing Curb Your Enthusiasm, wherein everyone is duped, pissed, and unnaturally selfish to the point of megalomania with no redemption or learned experience in sight puts him in Allen’s unblinking spotlight. He is relentless, dour, condescending and yet a weirdly relatable composite of Groucho Marx and Dostoyevsky’s Ivan.

Among several stellar performances in the film is the southern triumvirate of Ed Begeley Jr., as the easily tempted moral patriarchal poser, his overly dramatic and perpetually flustered ex-wife, Patricia Clarkson, and their wide-eyed belle of a daughter, Melodie, who is the adorable antagonistic foil for Yellnikoff, played with great empathy and wit by Evan Rachel Wood, following in the footsteps of such Oscar-winning female luminaries as Diane Keaton, Diane Weis, Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz.

For Yellnikoff and quite frankly his author, Melodie represents the random lunacy, unpredictability and splendor of life’s little joke; how two completely disparate personalities in age, intellect, sensibility, and geographical origin, can meet up and imprint their character on one another, spiking holes in the film’s otherwise dimly comical skepticism. This is not unlike Allen’s own bizarre courtship with Soon Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his ex-lover, Mia Farrow.

There are also the many and varied classic Woody Allen twists and turns, strangely formulated encounters and plenty of laughs in Whatever Works, which may not be his best work but an uncanny synopsis of his most celebrated films’ general philosophy—life is filled with one frighteningly random chaotic pratfall and unexpected disappointment after the other, but sprinkled with just enough humor, love, art, and exciting distraction to keep us from snuffing it.

James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella. Archives of Reality Check are available at jamescampion.com.


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