Friday, February 24, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.24: Woody Allen's Whatever Works/You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2009’s Whatever Works and 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Whatever Works Grade: 49 (C+)
How to follow up one of your biggest critical and commercial hits in years? After hopping around the globe for the better part of four years, Woody Allen returned to New York for the first time since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda for Whatever Works. Like Hollywood Ending, Whatever Works was an idea Allen had developed years ago, put away for some time, and took out years later. Originally written in the late-70s with Zero Mostel in mind for the lead role, Allen took his dusty old script and recast it with Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame as a replacement. The good news: Whatever Works is a lot better than Allen’s other New York-set films from the 2000s. The bad news: that isn’t saying much.
Boris Yelnikoff (David) is a misanthropic ex-Columbia professor who takes pride in that he almost won a Nobel Prize. He now spends his time teaching chess to “intellectual inferiors” and generally being mean to everyone. One day, 21-year-old southern runaway Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) comes to Yelnikoff’s doorstep, begging for a place to stay. Initially reluctant, Boris takes in Melodie and starts teaching her his negative worldview. Melodie develops a crush on Boris (we’ll get to this later) and the two marry. One year later, Melodie’s conservative southern parents John and Marietta (Ed Begley, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) show up and try to take Melodie away (or at least get her to fall for someone younger). But as they’ll soon find out, New York is a hell of a town where everyone finds love in unexpected places, and one can ultimately only find “whatever works”.
The film isn’t particularly ambitious- it feels like a lesser Woody Allen work in the Annie Hall/Manhattan vein with its exploration of relationships. Boris Yelnikoff could have been a bitter old man in the ugly Deconstructing Harry/Anything Else vein, but he’s far more harmless than most old curmudgeons in Woody Allen films, and the film’s tone is much warmer and less nasty than its immediate comparisons. To Allen’s credit, he doesn’t cast himself in the lead role (his performances have been far too schtick-laden as of late), and while the original Whatever Works script is lesser “70s Woody Allen”, it’s a lot better than “2000s Woody Allen”.
The trouble is that the film ultimately doesn’t have much to recommend it. Larry David is a funny guy (watch Curb Your Enthusiasm), but he’s not really giving a performance here so much as he’s doing a stand-up routine. For the first third of the film it’s a funny stand-up routine, mind you, but it still feels a bit off. The other actors fare a bit better even as too many of them are called upon to play southern cartoons (Begley, Clarkson), but it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Allen doesn’t know very much about the south if he thinks it’s all backwater burgs with super-Christian communities who don’t know much ‘bout big city livin’. Granted, there’s probably plenty of places like that, but it doesn’t make for very effective characters. As Clarkson realizes she wants to by a polyamorous photographer and Begley realizes that he’s a closeted homosexual, it becomes clear that Allen thinks very little of small towns and figures that it’s only in the city where freedom, sexual or otherwise, can thrive. It’s a bit of a narrow view. Furthermore, the very idea that David and Wood could fall head-over-heels in love (even if they find more age-appropriate partners by the film’s end) is more than a little absurd. Combine all of this with the script’s creaky updates (topical references have been changed likely from “communist” to “Taliban”) and general feeling that Allen didn’t try to update the material and you’ve got a mess.
These aren’t the biggest reasons Whatever Works doesn’t work as a film, however. The biggest reason: Whatever Works is not a film. It’s a filmed play. Allen might try (well, “try”) to open it up by having David and company walk and talk outside, but the film’s structure and situations never feel cinematic. Larry David talks directly to the camera, a la Annie Hall, but it isn’t shot in a particularly innovative or memorable way, and David’s references to “the audience” feels like they’re directed more to a theatre than a cinema. Allen doesn’t give cinematographer Harris Savides (who did memorable work on Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy) anything to do, and the combination of thin material and disengaged filmmaking makes for a pretty sloppy film.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Grade: 28 (C-)
For all of Whatever Works’ problems, it at least never feels groan-inducing. The same can’t be said for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen’s fourth outing in London and an even lazier trifle than Whatever Works. There’s virtually nothing good to be said about Tall Dark Stranger- the actors have nothing to work with, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (the legend who photographed Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter) has nothing to work with, and the film is so unmemorable that it’s difficult to remember anything about it that wasn’t actively terrible twenty-four hours after viewing.
Helena (Gemma Jones) turns to a psychic for comfort after her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) divorces her and later ends up with the much younger Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a  prostitute. Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) works in an art gallery with her handsome boss Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally’s marriage to struggling writer Roy (Josh Brolin) is failing, and Roy is entranced by the gorgeous next-door neighbor, Dia (Frieda Pinto). Sally wonders whether or not she should have an affair with Greg while also wishing she had her own art gallery. Roy struggles with the knowledge that his book isn’t very good and that his friend wrote a much better one; when a car-accident leaves said friend in a coma, Roy passes the man’s book off as his own, all while engaging in afternoon lunches and walks with Dia. Helena finds love with another man swindled by the fortune teller while Alfie quickly learns that marrying a much younger prostitute probably wasn’t a path to true love.
Oh, gee, what does this sound like? Husbands and Wives, Allen’s last masterpiece? You think? Well you better have loved that film so much that a near-complete recreation of every character, with a few minor variations, is enough for you, because that’s all there is to it save for the fortune-teller aspect. Hopkins and Jones are playing Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis’ roles. Watts and Brolin are filling in Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s shoes (Brolin, by the way, isn’t exactly a good fit for a Woody Allen-surrogate). Antonio Banderas is exactly like Liam Neeson’s character, only he’s Spanish instead of Irish. Frieda Pinto is Juliette Lewis. Zzzzz. Allen doesn’t care about any of these characters. Why should we?
Honestly, what else is there to say about the film? It proceeds pretty much exactly as one might expect, with Allen highlighting the themes of “death” and “love” over and over again, as if we didn’t get it the first time. Allen still doesn’t have much of a feel for British-English dialogue, but it isn’t as if he’s trying anymore. He’s just as bored with London as he is with New York. Lucy Punch’s character is another in a long line of awful, materialistic shrews in Allen’s late-period work (just when Vicky Cristina seemed to set things right…), but it’s hard to even take offense at this point. Like Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Melinda and Melinda before it, it’s very clear that this is a first draft up on the screen, too lazy and arbitrary to stick longer than a few days, if that. Allen’s year-a-film pace does not work anymore. He needs to take his time. The world doesn’t need another film from the writer-director where it’s obvious he typed up a rushed first draft, looked it over, and said “Eh, good enough.”

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