If I were to tell you that Woody Allen’s new film, “Whatever Works” (opening locally as “Jinsei Banzai!”), involves a nubile, rather dim young girl falling for a cantankerous, neurotic, much older guy, your reaction might be: “Not again!”
Yep, that was my feeling too. Allen’s 40th film has Evan Rachel Wood in the “Mighty Aphrodite”-type role of sweet-natured bimbo, and Larry David in the traditional Woody role of whiney, over-educated schlep. Boris is a science genius turned misanthropic hermit — after a failed suicide attempt and broken marriage — until Melody turns up, a teenage runaway sleeping rough outside his Manhattan loft. He takes her in, rather begrudgingly, and though the two are definitely not cut from the same cloth, somehow love works its mysterious ways.
I’m not sure whether I buy the notion that all it takes to win the heart of a Mississippi beauty queen 40 years younger than oneself is to introduce her to the joys of old movies, Jewish cuisine and existentialist despair, but Allen’s film is — surprisingly — bristling with enough sharp edges and great jokes that we can forgive his usual conceit of the June-December couple.
There’s still a hint of self-justification in the air; much of the film feels like a further defense of the director’s controversial relationship with Soon Yi Previn (his former partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter), who’s 34 years his junior. Allen once commented on that relationship in an interview with Time magazine, saying, “The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to these things. You meet someone and you fall in love, and that’s that.” “Whatever Works” is made in much the same spirit.
But then one discovers that Allen wrote the script for this some 30-plus years ago, well before he even met Soon Yi (although he was reputedly involved with another teenager at the time). “Whatever Works” was originally penned for the actor Zero Mostel (“Fiddler on the Roof”), but set aside after his death in 1977. While warmed over leftovers never sound too appealing, “Whatever Works” stems from Allen’s “Annie Hall”-era creative peak, and packs more of a zing than almost anything he’s done in the past two decades.
The film starts on full blast, and rarely lets up, as Boris — proving too grouchy and negative for his coffee-drinking buddies — turns straight to the camera and unloads a fusillade: “I’m not a likable guy,” he declares. “And just so you know, this is not the feel-good movie of the year, so if you’re one of those idiots who need to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage!” What follows is one of the most blisteringly cynical and darkly funny monologues Allen has ever written, and David is totally up to the task, making you laugh hard while also realizing you’d never want to share a table with this guy.
Wood, one of the most promising young actresses working today, proves talented enough to create a vibrant, likable character out of Allen’s cliche of the brainless bimbo — much as Penelope Cruz had to do with the tempestuous Latina cliche in “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” But as one line in the film has it, “Sometimes a cliche is finally the best way to make one’s point.” Needless to say, Wood is a riot; just watch her absolutely perfect space-cadet delivery of the line, “Am I a member of my generation?”
The film picks up even more steam mid-course, as the always-excellent Patricia Clarkson wanders in as Melody’s conservative Christian mom, who regards Boris with about the same affection she’d have for something particularly funky stuck to the sole of her shoe.
Unlike, say, Ben Kingsley’s old lothario in “Elegy,” Allen never gives Boris the charm necessary for us to buy into Melody’s fascination with him. This could have proven fatal, but the film has the sense to suggest their relationship is far from stable or long-term; Boris may be the protagonist, but he is not indulged.
As other characters enter the picture, various couples split, hook up, and recombine in all sorts of pansexual combinations, and Allen’s statement here becomes explicit: In a cold, unforgiving universe, should we not take whatever small pleasures we find in the arms of lovers? Without expectation or judgment? As Boris puts it, go with “whatever love you can get or give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide. Whatever works.” Who can argue with that?