Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Welcome to Woody's dark alter ego

Woody Allen's latest Whatever Works is far from his best movie. But it does re-introduce us to Woody's common neuroses and philosophical riffs on life, after the spate of movies of recent years (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra's Dream, Match Point) which are focused on plot lines removed from his subjective musings. But instead of Woody starring in this me-focussed film he has implanted Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. This script sounds fresh (including references to Darfur and Global Warming, and a joke about a black man being elected president but still not being able to hail a cab in New York) but it was really written back in the Seventies. And the Boris Yellnikoff (David) character was originally written for Zero Mostel. It's hard to believe, given all the rantings that have come out of Woody's mouth over all these years, that this version of Allen's Being and Nothingness could be the harshest of them all. But it is. Allen's earlier scripts may have been full of wry observations ("Eighty percent of life is showing up", "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work..... I want to achieve it through not dying", "Life is divided into the horrible and the misearble"). But those witticisms carried intellectual heft as well as laughter and charm. But in this release his script is full of mostly acerbic barbs for the sake of being acid-like and cutting. There is really no gentle humour amidst the sarcasm. Boris, a retired physics professor who is both above it all and mad at the world, can only disparage. Unlike previous incarnations of the Woody character who may have been lovingly neurotic there is little to love in this 60-something misanthrope, whose words are sprayed at everyone within earshot whether woman, man or, yes, child. ("...if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage," "What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nothing comes to anything. And yet, there's no shortage of idiots to babble."). "Idiots" is shouted a lot in this film. Boris is offensive to his friends, to strangers on the street and, worst of all, to children, to whom he teaches chess, belittling their incompetent moves and repeatedly calling them "cretins." It's a wonder children aren't crying after these harangues as they surely would be in real life. Even when he mocks himself ("I tried to commit suicide.....obviously it didn't work out.") it's hard to feel love. "Kill yourself, already," might be a reasonable reply. The Evan Rachel Wood character, a Mississippi runaway, is of course the perfect foil for this intellectual left-wing New Yorker. She's naive, a "baton twirler," and beauty pageant contestant of fundamentalist Christian persuasion. So let his venom rip. It is interesting that Allen didn't play the lead character. Was it because he didn't want to ruin his nebbish befuddled image audiences have grown to love? Also interesting is that he picked David for the role. David created Seinfeld, a genuinely funny take on life's absurdities that everyone could laugh at. By contrast, his Curb Your Enthusiasm takes absurdity to a darker and ham-handed level: replacing satire with a dispiriting meanness (the Splashback episode) and even pornographic images ( Get in That Ass, Big Vagina). Therefore, Whatever Works is Woody's nihilistic bleakness represented, appropriately enough, by the baser Larry David.

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