Sunday, July 3, 2011

Every Temporary Measure Of Grace

The sound of Groucho Marx in ANIMAL CRACKERS singing “Hello, I Must Be Going” pokes through during the opening credits of Woody Allen’s WHATEVER WORKS and though the song’s title goes just right with the lead character we’re about to meet the tinniness of the distant audio also seems somehow fitting for a film which itself seems to be from a distant place, a place that few people ever respond to, where most of the recent films directed by Woody Allen seem to reside. Because of this there’s something extremely gratifying about the overwhelmingly positive response to Allen’s most recent film MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, at this writing likely to surpass even the $40 million gross of 1986’s HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and I’ve honestly taken great pleasure hearing how much people seem to genuinely love this wonderful film, some of them even going back to see it multiple times. When I saw it on opening day I left the Arclight feeling as if I was walking on air and, if anything, my second viewing several weeks later put me in an even better mood. Actually, I hope it continues to play for a while in case I ever need to be cheered up that way again in the coming months. Allen’s previous film, the darkly cynical drama YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, didn’t get much in the way of any support—I’ve actually heard wildly divergent responses from both ends of the spectrum and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS almost plays as some sort of rebuttal to himself, as if doing a complete 180 from the most bitter traces of that film to the unbridled optimism and vibrancy of this new one. The approach of magical realism the film takes is very much of a piece with some of his previous work and there are, as sometimes happens with him, also spare traces of dialogue that can be recognized from earlier films. Who knows why and how it happens sometimes but this one just seems to have clicked.

I admit it, I’m one of those die hard Woody fans who have faithfully gone to see each new film released as soon as possible and I have no problem admitting that this has actually been extremely rewarding at times to trace the continued evolution of this now-legendary director after most of the world has already written him off. In spite of the ‘meh’ response that has occurred more than a few times there are maybe only a few from the past decade that haven’t worked for me much at all but, in fairness, I even know people who have good things to say about those. And let me be clear, I go into every single Woody Allen film wanting to love it, hoping to once again get that rush you sometimes get from him at his very best. But here’s the thing, when it comes to Woody Allen films of recent vintage they fall into three categories— the ones I think do work and would recommend without hesitation (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA), the ones that sadly don’t work (for me, HOLLYWOOD ENDING, CASSANDRA’S DREAM), and those that speaking as a Woody Allen fan I honestly admit that I like and get pleasure from but nevertheless have to bend over backwards considerably to try to defend them to anyone. These would include the likes of MELINDA AND MELINDA, ANYTHING ELSE, CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION…and, for me, WHATEVER WORKS. Starring the great Larry David in what can essentially be called the Woody-surrogate role I saw the film on my birthday during its opening weekend back in June ’09 and the bitter pleasures it offered were really all that I needed on that particular occasion. Like several of the films he’s directed as of late it’s hard not to read into the message being espoused as some kind of artistic summation of his entire world view and in that sense this one plays as kind of an old man’s movie without much of any real artistic pulse, which may actually be its biggest drawback. Some of it is a little too bitter and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual world, at least not the one that was going on outside of the theater in 2009. But at the same time the whole film is nimble enough, even within its own darkness, that it seems to go by in about twenty minutes and there’s something about the film’s own attempt at an acceptance of what the world is, and always will be, that has caused me to occasionally rewatch it over the past few years. And it was one of several films I found myself recently looking at again, what with my birthday coming around again and contemplating exactly what this particular birthday, one where I’m faced with the prospect of getting older more than usual, meant in the big picture. I don’t have an answer for that but somehow having this film nearby helped a little. And some of it genuinely makes me laugh even after multiple viewings, what can I say.

Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David) is a brilliant physicist and former Columbia professor who was once “almost” nominated for a Nobel Prize but after an unsuccessful suicide attempt left him with a limp he left his wife, moving downtown to “eke out a meager living” teaching chess and pontificating over the outrages of the world with his few friends. One night he arrives home to find the very young, very beautiful and somewhat dim Southern runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping in his garbage outside and begging him for some food. Reluctantly he brings her in and as much as she instantly annoys him Boris lets her stay on the couch. After weeks pass, Melodie is still staying there. Though she gets a job walking dogs and begins dating as she continues to annoy him, Boris’ misanthropic influence begins to rub off on the Southern belle more than either of them thought possible and they are soon married, despite being decades apart in age. A year later, Melodie’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up on their doorstep outraged over what has happened to her but she soon begins to become attracted to the new lifestyle of New York. But she has no intention of allowing the marriage to continue and that’s nothing compared to the interest Boris’s friends show in her or what will happen when John (Ed Begley, Jr.), Marietta's cheating husband and Melodie’s father shows up himself.

In 2005 Woody Allen was in Los Angeles doing publicity for MATCH POINT, appearing at a number of screenings presumably to grease the wheels for possible award consideration (this was all for naught as it turned out, though the picture turned out to be one of his biggest hits in years). It was a packed house at the DGA to see the film which would be followed by a Q&A and there were several familiar faces in the crowd—my friend and I were close enough to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND creator Phil Rosenthal that we were able to hear him say, “Nobody’s more excited about this than me!” Jeff Garlin of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM was also nearby and before the film he stopped to talk with someone, presumably from the CURB crew, directly behind us and it was impossible not to listen to what was being said (You know, the old ‘between eavesdropping and couldn’t help but hear’ that Stuntman Mike referred to). Wondering if Woody might have ever seen the show, Garlin mentioned a mutual friend who had apparently once asked him if he knew who Larry David was to which Woody supposedly responded without hesitation, “Of course, I know who Larry David is, I used him in two movies.” True, of course, as Larry has small roles in RADIO DAYS and the OEDIPUS WRECKS segment of NEW YORK STORIES, a scene in which he and Woody actually share the screen. It’s kind of an amazing thing to see now and some of the Woody Allen jokes that occurred on SEINFELD (“These pretzels are making me thirsty.”) only adds to the amusement of the feature length team-up of WHATEVER WORKS even existing as well. The cinematic meeting of the two comic geniuses as director and star never really catches fire beyond a level of experimentation and simple overall pleasantness but maybe because both of them are set in what their basic comic personas ultimately are there’s no real way it could have. As it is, the film just sort of ambles along which maybe is good enough anyway.

The release of MATCH POINT in 2005 seemed to mark the beginning of what will probably ultimately be known as Allen’s European period so the return to his New York stomping grounds for WHATEVER WORKS may seem like something of a regression and this is kind of actually the case. Due to worries of a possible strike that would affect shooting schedules Woody dusted off an unfilmed script he had written for Zero Mostel back in the 70s and reworked it for present day, casting Larry David in the lead (well, he did sort of once play Max Bialystock). And it does seem like it was written for that earlier decade, even with any number of references inserted into dialogue to bring it up to date almost as if it were a revival of a play reworked by the original author to let it play in present times. Because of the distinctive Woody Allen tone much of it has a familiar sort of feel to it anyway but sometimes things are just a product of the era they were created in and there’s not much that can really be done about that. WHATEVER WORKS is slight and dated as well as being more of a short story or sketch put on film than anything else. It’s also considerably misanthropic so maybe a little too much of it just comes off as awfully sour, maybe more than might have been intended. When a friend of mine saw the film, he sent me an email recalling a famous line from ANNIE HALL which simply read, “And they all became left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. The end.” Well, it’s funny because it’s true. WHATEVER WORKS isn’t really about much more than that in the end, although enough of it just sort of meanders along in pleasant, modest fashion.

The opening and closing monologues spoken by David direct to the camera, even acknowledging the audience watching the film, feel profound enough that they almost manage to make the movie more than it is no matter how familiar the gimmick is by now. I’d make the argument that there has been more experimentation in some of Woody Allen’s films in recent years than he’s gotten credit for but this wouldn’t be a prime example of that—almost more than usual, the camera just sort of stays put, observing things from a distance in a somewhat static, old-school style which on one hand feels right for the basic material and at other times it all just feels a touch stodgy, as closed off from the world as Boris himself is. Sometimes this works like the multiple scenes of just David and Wood playing off each other or the bar scene between Ed Begley, Jr and Christopher Evan Welch—watching that scene this time I not only found myself admiring the simplicity of it but also the willingness to have such a key scene near the end of the film involve two characters who had really just been introduced. In thinking about how the movie succeeds at some of those points it makes me admire it all the more and for that matter much of the camerawork by Harris Savides is quite lovely throughout in its simplicity, offering a particularly nice feel of spring.

WHATEVER WORKS certainly isn’t the best of Woody Allen from recent years, but maybe it doesn’t need to be perfect since it’s about someone who can’t stand things when they’re too perfect anyway—instead, he needs to find a way through his own obsessive-compulsive nature to accept how what is unexpected and ultimately imperfect, the things in life that don’t conform precisely to what he needs, can lead to a more fulfilling existence all around. As well as discovering that sometimes a cliché really is the best way to make ones point. It has the feel of a small scale chamber piece to the point that it’s as if we’re actually in Boris’s apartment watching these scenes being performed and there’s something comforting about it in a way that goes with the famous Groucho Marx song that opens the film, with the recurring lilting softness of “If I Could Be With You”, a piece of music performed by Jackie Gleason and his Orchestra which itself sounds like it’s desperately reaching out for some form of happiness and by this point the film comforts me in a way that watching an old Fred Astaire movie on TV does for Boris. It might be about finding what’s good in the world courtesy of Manhattan liberals and in doing so dismissing all beliefs of people from a certain part of the country as well as certain religions but taking such blatant jabs at things like the NRA doesn’t bother me anyway. Maybe some of it does seem a part of the past, but this never hurts the film to the point that it turns into total irrelevancy. In the end, maybe people can change and open their eyes to what can really happen in the world they occupy, as impossible as that may sometimes seem. And maybe that’s a good thing. Yes, it’s kind of an old man’s movie. Yes, I know plenty of fair weather Woody Allen fans out there who don’t have much use for this. What can I say. I know I’m in the minority and I’m not saying that anyone who loved MIDNIGHT IN PARIS should necessarily give this one a try. But it makes me laugh. It speaks to me somehow. When it comes to what I need from Woody Allen’s films sometimes, well, whatever works.

Larry David never seems quite as comfortable here as he does playing himself within the freedom of improvisation on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM but he does infuse Boris with a certain nature that makes it almost impossible to imagine the part being played by Woody himself (which would probably come off like his lead role in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY). Say what you want about him seeming wooden or awkward at times at least he’s eager in approaching this part. When he has to confront his lengthy opening and closing monologues you can feel that he genuinely means what he’s saying as if these are thoughts that David himself has had through his own comedy every now and then. The earnestness of Evan Rachel Wood as Melodie totally works and you can feel her character’s subtle changes as she gets more attached to Boris, selling her devotion to him as much as just seeing the two of them in the same frame together, let alone married, seems totally ridiculous. Patricia Clarkson, little surprise, practically steals the film clearly having a great time as Marietta with her eager Southern way who almost instantly becomes more interested in certain worldly pursuits than she ever realized. Ed Begley, Jr. seems a little more unsure—I’m not sure I ever buy him in the role but then again there are moments like that extended take bar scene he plays with the very good Christopher Evan Welch as “Howard Cummings, née Kaminsky” where I just get pleasure out of these two actors working their way through this scene together. Conleth Hill has a relaxing Manhattan academic air as Boris’s friend Leo Brockman, Michael McKean is another one of Boris’s friends, the soon-to-be-Superman Henry Cavill is the young Randy Lee James with a definite interest in the married Melodie and the surprisingly empathic nature of Jessica Hecht as a woman Boris meets through unexpected circumstances feels totally appropriate to help wrap up the story in its final scenes.

And I think about where I am at this point in time, after this birthday which means a little more than other birthdays, a birthday that really does make me wonder where I’m going in life. Boris Yelnikoff bitches people out at every opportunity yet at the same time he kind of understands because, with everything around us in the world today, “it’s overwhelming.” I’m still trying to figure out how to balance these things out for myself. I mean, I have a lunch with someone, a phone conversation with them, we exchange text messages and it all leads me to examine whatever that relationship is and what it all means. Because what does it all mean. Unlike many other films that came out in 2009, WHATEVER WORKS gives me some pleasure and laughs but it also helps to tell me that the small things I can find that do actually work, even if they’re things I wind up worrying about anyway, are usually the things that matter the most. The things that can keep one going. Woody Allen films can be included in that. I think one of them even had him coming up with such a list. Maybe all the more affecting because for all we know it might even be the last film he ever makes in New York, WHATEVER WORKS will never be ranked anywhere near MANHATTAN (or ANNIE HALL or LOVE AND DEATH or THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO or …) but I like keeping it close by regardless as I continue to keep making my way down the street and wonder if I’ll ever be able to see the whole picture.

“You are not the gentleman I was expecting.”

“I'm sure not. I'm sure you'd be happier if she married the guy who caught the biggest catfish in Plaquemine County.”

“I'd be happier if she married the catfish.”


Esoth said...

Another unapologetic fan of "Whatever Works" and not therefore surprising, a long-time fan of Mr. Allen and his work. And work he does. He makes the movies he wants and moves onto the next with an alacrity that would honor a man half his age. I imagine the surprising reception and box office for "Midnight in Paris" will have no more effect on his next films than the lukewarm box office and occasionally hostile critical review of some of his recent films. That is part of the fun in picking up the paper after every release -- you have to deal with what comes next on its own terms.

Allen did something unexpected after his fall from critical grace and the public unpleasantness surrounding his break-up with Mia Farrow. Instead of trying to answer the hideous allegations or to embark on a coordinated rehabilitation scheme, by returning to what had worked best in his past or consciously sweetening his work, he doggedly went about making the films he wanted to, some of them dark, bitter and angry, like "Deconstructing Harry". Even when some of these films failed to work for me, I did admire his resolve and his commitment to his work. In a strange way, his period of notorious low regard seemed to free him from prior boundaries that I hadn't even know were there. His films became, at times, coarser and even more witheringly hostile toward his targets. The language became more profane and the sexual content, in terms of the dialog and content, more explicit. It wasn't Allen thumbing his nose at his critics, so much as his standing up and saying what was on his mind. I don't think courage is an appropriate word to apply to a gifted, famous and well off film maker, but it was an emphatic statement that he was willing to have his films stand on their own terms even in the face of pre-emptive hostility. He seems to have come through that period and is now back to making whatever interests him, unafraid to risk ridicule for revisiting past themes.

"Whatever Works" is middling Allen, which means its better than most of what is released. It is interesting to see how Allen and Larry David use each other, how they stretch each other even as the Boris character fits comfortably within Allen's pantheon of male leads and within David's corner of the entertainment world. Boris is not Larry David, as he's stripped of his incongruous sense of style and neediness to please. And there is no ironic turn of events in the David mode, wherein he either is visited with some calamity that he has richly earned, or else rewarded for his sins with some stroke of surprising luck.

In the end Boris finds someone and becomes a part of a unconventional family, but that seems not the workings of cruel chance or a idiosyncratic creator, but because his harsh exterior there beats a human heart. If "Whatever Works" is part of Allen's extended summing up of his career and his life, there seems a genuine softening at the core (in a good sense). While Boris may stand alongside the most misanthropic of Allen's characters, for the rest of the world that offends Boris, there is the recognition of how tough an act life is to play well.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you for your amazing comments. What you had to say truly illumianted my own feelings for both this film and Allen's entire career. I'm very grateful.