If ever a movie could be described as an allegorical rendition of a director’s life, Whatever Works just might top the list. Marking Allen’s return to his native New York City after a four picture hiatus in Europe, the movie tells the story of Boris Yellnikoff (David), the only actor working in Hollywood today who most closely approximates Allen himself in look, mannerisms and philosophical outlook.
Afflicted by numerous neuroses, Boris has become the ultimate pessimist, seeing life as one long waterslide ride into an eventual cesspool. So bleak is his outlook that he becomes convinced that suicide is the only option, but even that cheap out fails him. Fed up with the world, Boris turns his back on much that society has to offer, instead spending his days teaching chess to kids while publicly humiliating them at every opportunity. Yes, Boris isn’t a happy camper, and takes pride in it. The fact that he’s managed to maintain a core of four friends is a miracle in and of itself. Then one day fate causes him to cross paths with Melodie St Ann Celestine (the delightful Wood), a country bumpkin runaway from the backwoods of Louisiana. She is Jethro Bodine to Yellnikoff’s Einstein. A complete intellectual and generational opposite. Love at first sight it isn’t, but given the axiom that opposites attract, Boris soon finds himself falling for the much younger siren (cue the Allen parallels).
While some critics have complained that much of the dialogue comes across as stilted and unnatural (which it does), Whatever Works unravels more like a stage play than real life, which, I think, is how Allen meant it. As writer and director, he has lots to say here and refuses to allow such trivialities as natural delivery stand in the way. This isn’t to say that the performances are wooden, but rather that nobody talks like Yelnikoff in real life, and I’m good with that. What’s important here are the ideas, constructs and situations that Allen infuses in his characters.
Interestingly, while much of the movie’s theme focuses on the serendipity of life, and thumbs its nose at the divine, the film can easily be viewed from both the atheistic and spiritual viewpoint, particularly given how events unfold in a seemingly manipulated manner. While not Allen’s finest work, Whatever Works will appeal to those who enjoy a light romantic comedy, particularly one that provokes a few sparks from our grey matter, while delivering its laughs.