Woody Allen returning to New York and casting the cynical miscreant Larry David in the lead role in his new film sounds potentially like a nasty throwback to Allen’s angrier films like Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity. But surprisingly, David works like a louder, even more hopelessly neurotic version of the beloved Allen character of the 1970s, and despite the negative tenor of the dialogue, the film itself has a sweet quality. And indeed, Whatever Works echoes nothing less than Manhattan (1979), with its mismatched but truly adoring relationship between an uptight older man and a pretty teenager.
David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a curmudgeonly genius and nuclear physicist who was once almost up for a Nobel Prize and now teaches chess to “cretins” and “inchworms.” He walks with a lurching limp, the result of a failed suicide attempt. (The movie somehow manages to put the right spin on this joke.) Boris occasionally gets together with friends to discuss the meaninglessness of the world and the morons who inhabit it. One night, a runaway waif, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Wood, working a darling little Mississippi accent), appears on his doorstep, begging for scraps of food. Before long, the two form an odd, touching relationship, in which he teaches her about things like despair and decay and she listens eagerly. In any lesser comedy, Melodie would eventually reform the uptight sourpuss, but Allen finds a way for happiness to gently prevail without ever betraying Boris’ dark heart.
Boris occasionally narrates, speaking directly to the audience, and Allen has a good time playing with the postmodern silliness of this device. But things get a little too wacky when Melodie’s separated, religious mother (Clarkson) and father (Begley) turn up, and New York brings out untapped sides of their personalities. Then Melodie has a crisis of conscience when she meets a handsome actor (Henry Cavill). Because of this eventual shift in focus away from our crusty main character, Whatever Works finally checks in as minor Allen, especially coming after last year’s great Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But while David is in the driver’s seat, Whatever Works is a very funny blend of bitter and sweet.