Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Whatever Works (2009)

Then Well, this was a surprise. Released nearly eighteen months ago in the US and having drifted around the world before reaching these shores, I’d given up on Whatever Works receiving a theatrical release, to the extent that for the purposes of this project I bought a copy of the blu-ray from the US on the assumption that it was region free (the “fact” of which had been heavily reported online). And it does play. Just long enough to put up a banner that says it won’t show the actual film on blu-ray players outside of the US. Which means that today, I saw a film for which I have a copy on my shelf already.

By co-incidence, Manchester’s Cornerhouse is showing Whatever Works alongside two films by directors clearly influenced by Woody Allen. Greenburg from Noah Baumbach who seems to be building a career out of remaking Interiors and the film I watched as the first part of a double bill Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give in which Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play caustic Diane Keaton and Woody type characters and has Vicky Cristina’s Rebecca Hall and Melinda’s Amanda Peet. Like all of Holofcener’s film, it’s witty, tragic, thoughtful and about the guilt of privilege. Not unlike most of Woody's then too.

As ever this won't be a typical review, more of a poorly thought out first reaction which includes loads of spoilers. I know that won't be a problem for anyone outside of the UK.  But I'm still being cautious because this is a new release, so please do only read the following if you don't care either way.

Hello again.  Where was I?  Oh yes ...

Now Whatever Works is a treat, indeed the kind of rare treat which American film rarely offers these days. Yes, it’s raggedy in places, notably in its pacing, and there’s initially an eerie sense of Larry David trying to enforce his own style on words undoubtedly written for Woody himself, even if the director says he originally envisaged Zero Mostel from The Front, when he wrote it in the 1970s.

It's also often hilariously funny, though I’ll admit that it’s one of those later films which will only be of interest to his fans rather than passing trade, which seems to have been accepted by the studio who have replicated the US campaign and put Larry David front and centre on the poster rather than a shot of Evan Rachel Wood with barely anything on (which is her general repose in most of the film). For once, the poster indicates content, for better or worse.

The film certainly doesn’t deserve some of criticism that has been levelled at it, which I’m convinced would not have been had this been the first film by a promising director. The content of some of those reviews has been appalling, falling back on the old clichés of Woody telling a story about a May to December romance as though there’s something dirty about it (mentioning Soon-Yi in passing), or that it looks unfinished and under rehearsed (as though some of his earlier so-called classic films didn’t have those properties). Visiting Rotten Tomatoes with its 49% rating is like looking into the deep dark soul of the film reviewer.

Jason Solomans isn’t my favourite critic (I tend to think of him as the anti-Kermode), but he at least gave Whatever Works a glowing but balanced review in The Observer this past weekend making the point I have across much of this project that when critics talk about Woody’s “return to form” they miss the fact that he never lost it and that audiences may have been saying the same thing about Shakespeare because he didn’t ever quite better Hamlet.

Personally, the central thematic thread, that you should make the most of life and get love wherever you can, even if someone finds your choices socially unacceptable and that includes religion, hit me in the stomach. Allen’s trick is that however irascible and unpleasant David’s character Boris Yelnikoff is, forever calling himself a genius without much being able to demonstrate it, much of what he says is completely true.

We shouldn’t spend half our lives looking back on missed chances and poor choice and mistakes, we should just look to the now. Someone (bless them) has transcribed the longest and most perceptive speech for the IMDb’s memorable quotes page but much of it boils down to this later quote:
“That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.”

If Woody did indeed resurrect an old 70s script, that also means that such criticism is being directed at work which originated in the very epoch they’re comparing it negatively to, the Interiors/Manhattan/Annie Hall axis. It’s not unknown for him to go back to work first created decades before – Manhattan Murder Mystery had its origins in Annie Hall and there was his Don’t Drink The Water remake. Certainly some elements, such as Patricia Clarkson’s enlightenment and drift into free love have a 70s ting to them, and the cd player in David’s apartment would be easily replaced by a vinyl turntable of the kind seen in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Knowing that the script has sat in a draw for a few decades, we can see how it’s subsequently influenced or been recycled in his later work. What is the central relationship between Boris and Melody but a more light hearted version of that between the misanthropic Frederick (Max Von Sydow) and Lee (Barbara Hershey) in Hannah and Her Sisters with the improvisational quality of the similar romance in Manhattan?

Characters have broken the fourth wall throughout his career, though admittedly not to the astoundingly metafictional excess seen here, with David commenting on the behaviour of the people in the auditorium, his eyes looking right through us. The unexpected arrival of the lingering matriarch crops up in Anything Else. Nothing is exactly the same, no repeated scenes, so I might simply be noticing familiar tropes, but it could demonstrate that no ideas are ever really lost.

To increase the sense that we’re in a mixed up crazy kinda wurld, Mark Kermode gave the film a poor review last Friday. He says he didn’t laugh once (and neither did the two other people in the screening) and suggested that Woody has lost his sense of place in relation to New York, giving the city a “tourists” view. Well, as Kermode might say, two things on this.

Firstly, the reason we get the tourist version of the city is that it's being seen through the eyes of newcomers – Melody first then later her mother. When the more domestic parts of the city are shown, it’s the city blocks that the reclusive Boris inhabits and refreshingly they’re not Katz’s or the familiar locations, but places which ordinary New Yorkers might go.

Secondly, back in my review of Melinda and Melinda I suggested that then Woody was completing his New York project, tying up loose thematic and auteur related ends ready for his European adventures by commemorating everything which had gone before. Oddly, even though this is a return to New York, nothing in Whatever Works dissuades me from that view, and not just because of its earlier provenance.

Not only is the use of locations jumbled, his previous musical rule of jazz for comedy and classical for drama is up the wall and in some places reversed (you can see what I mean from the soundtrack which is available on Spotify should you have the capacity). But in general because of all the southern visitors it is an outsider’s view of the city but unlike Kermode, I believe that it’s deliberate and was perhaps even heightened in the contemporary update of the script.

Structurally the film also very clearly changes tack half way through. The opening half is generally from Boris’s point of view, we’re granted flashbacks and given a blow-by-blow account of his life story and philosophical perspective. What we discover about in these early scenes about Evan Rachel Wood’s Melody is from their two-handers and his conversations with friends (apart from the one scene in which makes the date with the dog walker and goes on the failed date).

Then, about half way through, just after Boris replaces Melody's musical choice with Beethoven’s 5th, the story opens out not to just encompass her, but her mother’s story and later her father and with the few narrative important exceptions such as when he still talks to the viewer, we’re given the external view of Boris and what Melody thinks of their relationship, but because we’ve already had time to empathise with him, we're disappointed when she drifts away with Charles Brandon from The Tudors.

Actually, Henry Cavill has splashes of light humour as the dashing Englisher even if his character name, Randy, seems a bit misplaced. Indeed there isn't a terrible performance here, and though David threatens to overpower everyone if only in through sheer volume, Evan Rachel Wood (like Mira Sorvino before her) brings a genuine depth to a character who elsewhere might have simply been the blonde intellectual punching bag. Special mention too for Clarkson, who brings nuance to a figure who despite changing her entirely life's philosophy remains the same person at the core.

As this rush of late night words should indicate, Whatever Works was well worth the wait (cliché!). Aided by those wonderful performances and a shooting style very much geared towards the cinema (which is why I’m quite glad the blu-ray wouldn’t play in the end) it might not be one of Woody’s best films, but it’s certainly a piece I’d want to see again, if only to take in the nuances of some of Boris’s longer soliloquies which have a textual density rare seen in contemporary cinema.

Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long to see You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Unless I take a Spanish holiday. It’s out there in August …


  1. I saw this today and while it's not hilarious, I did laugh a few times and found it quite a hopeful film despite Boris' misanthropy. I loved the lines at the end that you quoted above. And Evan Rachel Wood = fabulous. Such a talent.

    However, I was disappointed at the dearth of intelligent women (Boris' first wife is quickly dispatched with, and I got the sense that he found her too demanding in the sense that she was as clever as he was). I miss the likes of Diane Keaton and Angelica Houston.

    I also thought it was very (too) heavy-handed in its "Northern liberals good, Southern republicans bad" ideology (which detracted from the entertainment for me) and I don't think Larry David is a good actor (the best Woody Allen "impersonator" in his films is Kenneth Branagh, I think). I actually find Woody Allen likeable on screen, but even he knew this May-December would have been pushing it (I DO think it would have been pervy) which is something.

  2. I agree that Woody hasn't written many intelligent women lately, though I think we're meant to believe that to an extent both Melody and her mother are as clever as Boris in the latter parts of the film, if not intellectually, instinctively.

    And I agree that Larry David isn't best thing in it (which is why I didn't exactly single him out for praise above, probably). Some of his line readings seem off hand and I agree to an extent with A O Scott's reading that you do spend some of your time restitching what he's saying in your head either apply a better reading or giving Woody's younger voice to it.

    The film is hurt because Woody isn't there, but these days could never be. It's worth noting though that Woody specifically tells actors not to impersonate him but that he never seems to win the battle -- Branagh was deliberately doing it but others can't help but do something in the area because of the language and timing of the script. Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina early on is another example.

    On the "Northern liberals good, Southern republicans bad" ideology: I think that's another by product of the vintage of the script; that kind of juxtaposition runs through many of his 70s films.

    Probably what makes it slightly uneasy is that unlike Interiors, the intellectuals aren't marked out as being monsters for their patronising superiority.

    Then again it's even more likely that Woody was simply out of his comfort zone and going for the easy stereotype as he did in Small Time Crooks.

    I did consider afterwards why he didn't simply set it in the 70s and make the script as it stood. I wonder what the original band name was...

  3. "I did consider afterwards why he didn't simply set it in the 70s and make the script as it stood."

    Ooh, now *that* would have been interesting! Love that idea. Maybe he thought it would be too meta/self-referential, but he doesn't really get the modern world, and that was less obvious in the 70s.

    "Probably what makes it slightly uneasy is that unlike Interiors, the intellectuals aren't marked out as being monsters for their patronising superiority.

    Then again it's even more likely that Woody was simply out of his comfort zone and going for the easy stereotype as he did in Small Time Crooks."

    Ooh, good insight. I still haven't seen Interiors (the idea of an Allen non-comedy doesn't appeal to me that much) but he could have used some of that skewering of pomposity here. Maybe it was about the easy stereotype or maybe he thought he could get away with it because atheism (and maybe anti-southern sentiment?) is more high-profile now. It would actually have been more effective/relevant when Bush was in office — either one.

    "The film is hurt because Woody isn't there, but these days could never be. It's worth noting though that Woody specifically tells actors not to impersonate him but that he never seems to win the battle -- Branagh was deliberately doing it but others can't help but do something in the area because of the language and timing of the script. Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina early on is another example."

    Yes, it's so hard to not imagine Woody saying his words and doing it 10x better. I do think it works better with Branagh and Hall than with Larry David or Jason Biggs, as they're much better actors. I think that's one reason I prefer Melinda & Melinda, as it's more of an ensemble piece. (Yes, Will Ferrell does an Allen impression, but the effect is diluted.) Or maybe animation is the answer? (I loved Antz) ;)

    Ps: there were 3 people in the cinema, including me. Which made me a bit sad.

  4. You must see Interiors, if only because it works as a counterpoint to all of the comedy dramas that follow because it's so unremittingly dark. But it's also utterly beautiful; compositionally some of the close ups are the most luminous in cinema, especially of Diane Keaton who looks like she's wandered in from a Klimt painting.

    The problem you come up against with Woody is that he's so self critical of his performances, especially as a dramatic actor that he's reluctant to appear in his own films anymore. That he hasn't appeared in an out and out drama since he split with Mia speaks volumes.

    If you read interviews connected to the films he has starred in, it's always because he couldn't get anyone else to do it. He probably would have been in Whatever Works if Larry David hadn't said yes or if he then hadn't managed to talked some other older actor into the part.

    There's a question, who else could have done Whatever Works and made it work better?

    Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been aces. Paul Giamatti? I bet he asked Hoffman first.

    There were a few more at the Cornerhouse, probably about fifteen of us for a 4pm showing. But the advertising budget has been minimal -- I think they're relying on press and word of mouth. Did you see it at a multiplex or indie?

  5. I saw it at a multiplex, in a massive screen. Wonder if that's the Larry David effect — Jade Scorpion was also on there, but in a tiny cinema. Or maybe there's no logic...

    I really should see Interiors, especially as I'm a big Diane Keaton fan. (Or was until a few films ago, ifyouknowwhatImean.)

    Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been excellent! I also think (as he went in a Seinfeldian direction) Jason Alexander would have rocked the role. He was doing a Larry David impression anyway (but better).

    Now I'm trying to work out whether Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld is the better actor. That is a tough choice...

  6. There's no logic. If there was logic, the BBC financed, British made, Scarlet Johansson and High Jackman starring Scoop would have had a theatrical release or at the very least a dvd release in the UK. It's had neither.

    George Carlin. If only he'd still been with us.

  7. What would George Carlin have done? (Sworn a lot?) ;)

    Yes, I'd love to see Scoop.

  8. Sorry, I meant Carlin for the Larry David role. I'm coming to the conclusion it needed a stand-up comic. Or Stephen Fry.

  9. Oh, I see! Yes. A stand-up who can act is a marvellous thing. Wanda Sykes is a good one, if Allen really wanted to step out of his comfort zone...

  10. Damn, Billy Crystal. Imagine Billy Crystal with these speeches.