Character is destiny — at least for Woody Allen's Whatever Works. Allen's exercise in Woody Allen nostalgia opens with a snatch of Groucho Marx singing his trademark paradoxical assertion ("Hello, I must be going") and is powered almost entirely by the presence of a single, larger-than-life, and less-than-likeable figure.
Whatever Works is Allen's first New York movie after five years abroad. It's his first in even longer to center on the Woody Allen character — an urban neurotic wise guy, here named Boris Yellnikoff and brashly played (or rather, brayed) by HBO star Larry David. Toughened and (relatively) rejuvenated by David's aggressive performance, the Allen surrogate is introduced treating his café friends to a lecture on the "God racket," which segues into a rant against the stupidity of feel-good movies. Hah!
Nothing especially new — Allen wrote this script 30 years ago and intended it for no less a force of nature than Zero Mostel. What gives the material weight is the loquacious curmudgeon's derisive half-smile. Nastier than David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boris is a cousin to insult comedian Don Rickles or former New York Mayor Ed Koch — a smug, self-absorbed, argumentative nudnik with unshakeable faith in his listeners' stupidity and his own "huge worldview." Resplendent in T-shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts as he limp-lurches toward the camera to buttonhole the viewer, this boorish yelling-kopf writes the check for a comic masterpiece that Whatever Works is unable to cash.
A former physics professor who gimped his leg in a ridiculous suicide attempt, Boris supports himself by teaching chess to kids whom he derisively browbeats as "patzers," pint-size versions of the "mindless zombie morons" who populate the Earth. In an earlier era, he might have been the rudest of waiters in a dairy restaurant. Is there anything at all that could rock this schmuck's world? Whatever Works shifts into gear when Boris finds a teenage runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) camped out in front of his anachronistically shabby downtown digs, and grudgingly takes her in.
Of course, Melodie is also a type. Woody Allen looks at her and hears America singing. She's a cheerful, optimistic, winsome Mississippi belle — Margaret Dumont meets Daisy Mae or, as her benefactor ungraciously puts it, "a character out of Faulkner not unlike Benjy" — so apparently stupid that she doesn't get Boris's sarcasm and even develops a crush on him. They "date" (he takes her to Grant's Tomb and Yonah Schimmel's knishery), and, living out the Woodman's fondest fantasy, they marry. There cannot possibly be a happy ending, can there?
The wonder of Melodie's character is that she internalizes Boris's crabby, karping worldview yet maintains her sweet and tolerant disposition. Sex aside, Yellnikoff's cronies wonder what he sees in her. "She keeps me company at the emergency room when I'm convinced my mosquito bite is a melanoma," he explains. It's less apparent what Melodie sees in him, until her estranged parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.), arrive. The very sight of Boris is enough to make Marietta swoon in terror. Still, the introduction of these well-off, white-bread Jesus-praising "aborigines," as their son-in-law characterizes them, upstages and hence diminishes Allen's antihero even as Allen's own narcissism is globalized — there's no one so primitive they won't be grateful for an introduction to Manhattan sophistication. No less than their daughter, the yokels come to New York and, casting off the shackles of their benighted upbringings, go native. It is at this point when the movie dons its jammies and goes to sleep.
Like previous Woody Allen characters, Boris is allowed to directly address the audience: "I'm the only one who sees the big picture," he explains. But what sort of perspective is there when a movie that goes out of its way to mock It's a Wonderful Life winds up even more lazily pandering? To drown Boris's bitterness in a sickly vat of Manischewitz is the aesthetic equivalent of depraved indifference. Whatever Works illustrates, even as it names, Allen's artistic limitations.
To suggest, as Mark Harris did in a recent New York cover story, that Whatever Works marks the end of Jewish humor as we know it is to give this blown opportunity more significance than it warrants. Allen did invent and inhabit the persona of an anxious misfit, but, as ambitious as he is, he never came close to producing a truly corrosive, antisocial comic work — an equivalent to Portnoy's Complaint, the original version of The Producers, Borat, or any number of Lenny Bruce monologues. His problem, as Boris would surely have deduced, is a pathetic desire to be loved. He wants to make nice — it's just his nature.