International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review
Campion on Whatever Works
love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can provide, every
temporary measure of grace, whatever joy you can filch from this
immense void of nothingness, whatever works.
- Boris Yellnikoff from "Whatever Works"
It was somewhere
in the painful drudgery of penning an overview of a bogged down Health
Care debate in Congress that I decided to chuck the entire thing and
write about the new Woody Allen film, "Whatever Works"
instead. In a mind-numbingly prolific and brilliant career filled with
several and varied celluloid masterworks (forty-two in forty years),
my favorite filmmaker, and an indelible influence as a writer and award-winning
curmudgeon, has once again hit the mark. With Hollywood mired in a string
of regurgitated formulaic schlock and even the independent sources beginning
to repeat the same dark, gut-wrenching themes, Allen has continued to
present a freshly consistent string of darkly funny, thought-provoking
satires on the human condition and modern society at large.
From the opening salvo to the final soliloquy of "Whatever Works"
the very spirit of what this space has represented for nearly a dozen
years is unerringly portrayed in the form of one of Allen's most hilariously
nihilistic characters to date; Boris Yellnikoff, played with an overdose
of toxic venom by the laconic Larry David, whose general flavor is summed
up with "I am a man with a huge world view surrounded by microbes."
Using the obliteration of the dramatic "Fourth Wall", originated
in Allen's first true cinematic masterpiece, "Annie Hall"
thirty-four years ago, David repeatedly looks to the camera and unleashes
his outrage at what he has determined from years of reality bombardment
and a keen sense of prescience is a mindless, violent and depraved society
of nitwits and suckers floating through an insipid series of failures
as a race. But Yellnikoff's tormented, self-proclaimed genius existence
has rendered him an emotional cripple. He repeatedly attempts and fails
at suicide, yet ironically fears death; waking up several times throughout
the film shouting, "I'm dying!" When his wife, whom he eventually
dumps of course, asks if she should call for an ambulance, he argues,
"Not now, eventually!" and that the concept of not existing
It is a theme Allen has mined many times before in "Stardust
Memories" (1980) and "Deconstructing Harry"
(1997), but not nearly as sharply contrasted to whatever happens around
him. Allen beautifully juxtaposes Yellnikoff with his beloved New York,
where people are alive, creative, romantic, and almost goofily optimistic
in the face of his smarmy despair. It is no coincidence the protagonist
subsists in a basement hovel imprisoned in the expanding corridors of
China Town, an aging Jewish academic, railing against the failures of
Western culture, politics, and art in the shadow of an emerging Eastern
empire. Even when a young, naïve southern girl in the grand tradition
of Eliza Doolittle winds up on his doorstep begging for sustenance,
which eventually brings her overtly myopic Bible-thumping parents --
all eventually embracing the city's freeing Bohemian temptations and
finding true happiness in self-realization -- it has absolutely no affect
on Yellnikoff, save for providing fodder for his condescending wise-cracks
along the way.
And make no mistake about it; "Whatever Works" is Allen's
most political film. There have been polemic hints and jabs in his vast
canon of work, whether his prose -- last year's heady and oft-hilarious
Mere Anarchy -- or 1983's "Zelig", but "Whatever
Works" reeks of vicious slams on the NRA, the religious right,
the giddy superciliousness of modern liberalism or just about any general
philosophy. To his harrumphing friends, Yellnikoff, in the signature
Larry David snide but lovably demented tone, blurts, "Democracy,
socialism, or the teachings of Jesus, all great ideas with one undeniable
flaw, they all assume the better nature of humanity, that if we allow
people the freedom to make their own choices they will choose to be
kind and generous and sympathetic."
The other of Allen's grand themes is on display in "Whatever
Works"; the illusion and beauty of art; whatever the medium
-- its soothing elixir either masking the harsh realities of life --
"The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), "Bullets
Over Broadway" (1994) or acting as a dangerous narcotic that
is no substitute for genuine emotion or a connection to the life experience,
"Celebrity" (1998), "Sweet and Lowdown"
(1999). But here it is not as obvious. Yellnikoff's art is his lifestyle
and worldview, which both serve as a convenient excuse to ignore human
contact or engage in the simple pleasures of social interaction, in
a way a twisted reflection of Oscar Wilde's famous quip; "I want
to make of my life itself a work of art."
is here where the casting of David as Yellnikoff is simple perfection.
His legacy as co-creator of the torturous craziness in Seinfeld
and his successful HBO stint with the consistently amusing Curb
Your Enthusiasm, wherein everyone is duped, pissed, and unnaturally
selfish to the point of megalomania with no redemption or learned
experience in sight puts him in Allen's unblinking spotlight. He
is relentless, dour, condescending and yet a weirdly relatable composite
of Groucho Marx and Dostoyevsky's Ivan.
Among several stellar
performances in the film is the southern triumvirate of Ed Begeley Jr.,
as the easily tempted moral patriarchal poser, his overly dramatic and
perpetually flustered ex-wife, Patricia Clarkson, and their wide-eyed
belle of a daughter, Melodie, who is the adorable antagonistic foil
for Yellnikoff, played with great empathy and wit by Evan Rachel Wood,
following in the footsteps of such Oscar-winning female luminaries as
Diane Keaton, Diane Weis, Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz.
For Yellnikoff and quite frankly his author, Melodie represents the
random lunacy, unpredictability and splendor of life's little joke;
how two completely disparate personalities in age, intellect, sensibility,
and geographical origin, can meet up and imprint their character on
one another, spiking holes in the film's otherwise dimly comical skepticism.
This is not unlike Allen's own bizarre courtship with Soon Yi Previn,
the adopted daughter of his ex-lover, Mia Farrow.
There are also the many and varied classic Woody Allen twists and turns,
strangely formulated encounters and plenty of laughs in "Whatever
Works", which may not be his best work but an uncanny synopsis
of his most celebrated films' general philosophy -- life is filled with
one frighteningly random chaotic pratfall and unexpected disappointment
after the other, but sprinkled with just enough humor, love, art, and
exciting distraction to keep us from snuffing it.
© James Campion July 2009
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