After a string of films set outside not just the familiar confines of Manhattan, but outside of the U.S.A. altogether, Woody Allen returns to his home country and his hometown with a vengeance in Whatever Works, a comedy about how America would be a much better place if everyone lived in New York.
This time Allen casts Larry David in the part he would have played himself -- Boris Yellnikoff, a retired physicist who never misses the chance to tell people he almost won a Nobel Prize. Nowadays, though, he's a highly educated blowhard, spouting off opinion after opinion about the decrepit state of humanity with his friends -- at least that's what he does when he isn't insulting the children whose parents have hired him to teach chess to their offspring. One day, Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a homeless Southern girl, approaches him outside his apartment begging for money. Against his better judgment, Boris lets her into his home and quickly learns that her parents recently split up. She discovers that Boris' misanthropy is all bark and no bite, and as they become friends, her naïveté busts through his innate cynicism. Soon she's staying at his place, paying rent after she secures a job as a dog walker, and she becomes a more cultured person from spending so much time with Boris. After she goes out on a bad date with a guy her age, the May-December couple realizes they're in love, and they get married.
If that were the extent of the movie's plot, this would be just another in a long line of Woody's Pygmalion-inspired bittersweet romantic comedies, but it turns out their relationship is just the first act. The film takes a somewhat unexpected turn when each of Melody's parents shows up to try and rescue her from the city. Her mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), is simply aghast that Melody would marry someone who is not only decades older, but Jewish as well. After hanging out with the couple for a few days, though, Marietta goes on a date with one of Boris' friends, a respected art critic, who tells her she's a talented photographer. Soon Marietta has a thriving art career, and although she learns to love life in The Big Apple, she still never takes a liking to her son-in-law. Eventually Melody's father, John (Ed Begley Jr.), arrives at Boris' door looking for both his daughter and his wife, with whom he wants to reconcile, and his time in the city also changes him in unexpected ways.
While it's easy to point out how often Allen returns to the theme of an older man being romantically involved with a much younger woman, this time out he avoids the inherent "ick factor" thanks to his actors. Larry David plays Boris with a pronounced lack of sexuality -- he more or less says he's not interested in sex anymore -- and because of that he never comes off as a dirty old man, just a cantankerous old fart, while Evan Rachel Wood is simply, irresistibly charming, so you can understand why a man of Boris' age would want to nurture her.
For longtime Allen fans, it's a kick to have him filming in New York City again, to see his characters walk through the town while pontificating on every subject imaginable. But the downside is that what they say just isn't all that funny most of the time. Sure, there are laughs, especially in Evan Rachel Wood's dumb-girl delivery, but the film's Bush-era red state-vs.-blue state attitude suddenly feels out of synch with Obama in the White House. The biggest problem is that Boris' attitudes and opinions about life are never really challenged -- in fact they are validated by the movie's tidy ending. And, since it's difficult not to assume that Boris speaks for Allen, this gives Whatever Works a disappointing air of self-satisfaction -- bordering on smugness -- that would be easier to forgive if only the whole thing were much funnier. Sadly, Allen the writer/director has become a lot like his most recent creation -- all bark and no bite.