A Woody Allen movie about a neurotic, older Jewish guy who falls for a younger, cheerier gentile girl in a New York City bubble of wealth and privileged bohemia? No, you’re not in a time warp: Whatever Works is a new project from the creator of Annie Hall and Manhattan, 1970s classics about kvetchy/funny Semitic gentlemen and their sunny/literal-minded shiksas. Here, Larry David (master of his Curb Your Enthusiasm domain) plays a self-absorbed griper named Boris Yellnikoff, with the emphasis on yell. Boris is a pessimist from the universe-is-expanding school of despair, a lifelong miserablist who, screwing up a decent marriage to an attractive, wealthy woman (Carolyn McCormick), can’t even commit suicide quietly. After surviving his attempt, he meets a fresh-faced Southern runaway named Melody (plucky Evan Rachel Wood, a beauty comfortable playing opposite beastly characters after The Wrestler), then grudgingly takes her in off the street and belittles her as a prelude to marriage. Don’t go thinking about the filmmaker’s relationship to the current Mrs. Allen, Soon-Yi Previn; this mess isn’t quite that baroque. When Melody’s estranged parents (Patricia Clarkson, saving the day as usual, and Ed Begley Jr.) come to fetch their daughter, they, too, get absorbed into a magical? Manhattan world of sexual Anything Goes.
The fact that Allen wrote the script in the ’70s explains something about why his newest movie feels so old. But still, the guy couldn’t maybe come up with some new spritz of nu? Once again, the main character/Woody stand-in complains directly to the movie audience. Once again, a pretty young woman gives it up to a saggy homunculus. Once again, Allen occupies a hermetic notion of New York City rather than a reality. And even the novelty of casting a distinctive neurotic comedian as the lead backfires in a movie made by the president emeritus of the neurotic-comedians union. As Boris spits out stale monologues about the inconvenience of living in a world of idiots (and trots out that other old chestnut, about how most ills can be solved by watching Fred Astaire movies), Allen’s passive aggression hardens into something bitter when spoken with David’s aggressive aggression. Meanwhile, you can just about hear the tired director saying, ”Okay, this works. Whatever.” C