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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whatever Works

Larry David Works Well; Woody Allen scores with Pygmalion tale

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The enduring fantasy of older men is that a gorgeous young woman will fall in love with them, find them sexually arousing and long to imbibe their wisdom while sitting at their feet. That fantasy is the spring driving Woody Allen's often-hilarious farce, Whatever Works, and as any reader of People magazine knows, the fantasy worked for him in real life, too. But Allen has enough wit to undermine his own proposition by movie's end. Celebrity gossip hounds may wonder what the story's twisting plot says about the director's marriage to his younger woman, Soon-Yi Previn.

This time, Allen chose his stand-in well. Larry David stars as Boris Yellnikoff, a hypochondriac, neurotic, New York Jewish intellectual whose dark misanthropy is brightened only by a love for classic film and romantic, pre-rock music. Yellnikoff is an especially hard case as Woody Allen protagonists go, expounding the thesis that humanity is a failed species, that our present civilization is barbaric and moronic. He has a point, but pushes it over the line into morbid self-pity. A physicist passed over for the Nobel Prize, Yellnikoff projects feelings of inadequacy into megalomania and bitterness into barbed attacks against a hypocritical, not-too-bright society and its denizens.

And then Yellnikoff meets the blond young shiksa, Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a ditzy runaway from small-town Mississippi. Although he derides her at every turn, they fall in love. She plays nursemaid and he plays the Pygmalion game, infecting her with notions of cosmic entropy and social demise.

But when her recently divorced mother (Patricia Clarkson) arrives at the doorstep, the story turns inside out and outside in. She is determined to pry her girl away from this wretched man and finds a handsome, urbane and much younger substitute, even as she throws aside the strictures of Protestant fundamentalist Mississippi for the bohemian Manhattan demimonde.

Whatever Worksis a randy comedy, with the kvetching David channeling both Woody Allen and Groucho Marx for his performance. The moral of the story is that happiness and grace can rise from the apparent randomness of existence, with love as the balm that can soothe even the most savage misanthrope.

Whatever Works opens Friday, July 3, at the Downer Theatre.