In many ways, Whatever Works is an amalgam of all of the neuroses and preoccupations that have defined Woody Allen's previous films. Larry David plays Boris, a misanthrope who fled his "rational" marriage to live downtown in isolation, teaching chess to children through methods that involve repeated name-calling and knight-throwing. Boris's life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a runaway from Mississippi. Melodie is eventually followed by her mother (Patricia Clarkson) and father (Ed Begley, Jr.).
Patricia Clarkson storms into the movie after approximately 40 minutes, and plays a role in many ways comparable to Penélope Cruz's tempestuous Oscar-winning Maria Elena. While I was initially skeptical of Allen's treatment of Wood as a young Lolita, Clarkson actually plays the much more sexualized character. After showing up on Boris's doorstep in a hot pink ensemble (scrunchy included!) fit for the Southern pageant circuit, she is quickly awakened to the culture of New York. Naturally, this involves sex and art. In an interesting inversion of the much discussed relationship between ScarJo, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Clarkson moves in with two men without giving it a second thought. Her character transitions from praising Jesus to opening an exhibit of nude collages. Clarkson is dynamic and sexy and once again demonstrates her unbeatable range. I don't think it is any stretch to consider her worthy of this year's Oscar race.
The rest of the cast is also effective, pulling the humor out of frequently dark material. David's character first seems like the typical Allen prototype, but there is a bitterness to him that reminded me more of Max von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters. Evan Rachel Wood is very likable, but the vitality of her performance is trounced by the arrival of the inimitable Clarkson. Begley Jr. gives a hilarious turn, and Henry Cavill is both endearing and smarmy as a late love interest for Melodie.I'm encouraged to hear rosengje's positivity regarding Patty Clarkson (she who really needs an Oscar) but maybe she'll have to get there from Shutter Island instead? Would they really reward a similar role to last year's winner to get back-to-back Woody Allen Best Supporting Actress citations?
The biggest stylistic change Allen makes in this film is having Boris directly address the audience. The film opens with a lengthy treatise on the character's views on death and the cretins that populate the world. We end with a similar address, but this time it is tinged with a kind of optimism unique to Woody Allen. The character's refrain of "whatever works" takes on a slightly sweet quality. I suspect audiences and critics will debate the sincerity of its happy ending. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and believe it provides the same level of insight into the director's fears and desires that many pegged on Deconstructing Harry.
Film Experience podcast guest Katey also liked what she saw, speaking highly of Evan Rachel Wood's performance, too. I am so eager to see this. I have to have my annual Woody.