Boris the Grouch
Christianity and Marxism, as far as Boris Yellnikoff is concerned, suffer from essentially the same fallacy, the belief that people are fundamentally good. He finds mankind to be a failed species, and though the friends to whom he spends his days kvetching at a Little Italy café have clearly heard all this before, he’s always finding new proofs for them. Public toilets that flush automatically, for instance, because people can’t be counted on to flush after themselves.
Boris is a genius, a former Columbia physics professor who was once almost nominated for a Nobel Prize. He used to be married to a beautiful woman who was smart, brilliant, sexy, and in love with him. Under such circumstances, what else could he do but throw himself out the window?
Having survived his suicide attempt, he now lives in an apartment in Chinatown that was clearly not designed with human habitation in mind. He earns money teaching chess to children (or “brainless inchworms,” as he calls them when he can bear to speak to them at all).
Boris is the central character in Whatever Works, a Woody Allen movie that is both new and old. Wanting to start production on his yearly project before a potential actor’s strike but without a new script, Allen dusted off one he wrote in the 1970s for Zero Mostel but shelved when that blustering force of nature died.
It’s not a role Allen could have played himself: It takes a certain kind of actor to be able to be so continually grumpy without simply irritating viewers. So he cast Larry David, whose HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm has made him the favorite curmudgeon of our era.
You can certainly hear how a lot of Boris’s lines were written with Mostel’s bellowing delivery in mind. Nonetheless, the part fits David like a glove. He’s the rare actor who has taken the leading role in a Woody Allen movie without ending up sounding like a Woody Allen clone. And while human failing and existential hopelessness are old comic wells for the filmmaker, exploring them with a more forceful voice than his own trademark whine makes all the difference. David’s opening speech is as funny as anything Allen has written in years.
Boris’s pessimism is tested when, against his better judgment, he agrees to help a bedraggled teenager he finds on the street. Once she is fed and cleaned up, this Mississippi runaway with the improbable name of Melody St. Ann Celestine proves to have a disposition as sunny as his is sour.
Melody is played by Evan Rachel Wood, which proves to be the second casting coup of the film. Generally seen in darker roles (most recently as Mickey Rourke’s unforgiving daughter in The Wrestler), Wood is delightful. She makes Melody effervescent rather than bubbleheaded, sweet instead of simpering.
Viewers who cringe at the notion of another Woody Allen movie with a May-December romance should be reassured to know that the incongruousness of the relationship is the entire point. No one thinks that they are a suitable pair, especially Melody’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.), conservative Southerners who find their traditions tested when they arrive separately in Manhattan.
Critics who have given up hope that Allen will ever make a good comedy again are deriding Whatever Works for its implausibility. But these characters are clearly not meant to be realistic. Despite Boris’s proclamation to the audience that “I’m not a likeable guy, and this is not the feel-good movie of the year,” Whatever Works is a good-natured fable whose moral is that when you live a meaningless existence in a world of unending horror, you should grab at any chance of happiness that comes your way. You got a problem with that?
Watch the trailer for Whatever Works
blog comments powered by Disqus
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v8n27 (Week of Thursday, July 2nd, 2009) > Film Reviews > Whatever Works
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds