As opposed to the grim machinations of Match Point and the romantic melancholy of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen's newest film Whatever Works is almost immature in its bouncy cheer. Yes, it stars Larry David as a world-class misanthrope, who shouts at children about their chess skills and opens the movie by jumping out of his apartment window. But the movie shares more of the spirit of its female lead Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a pathological optimist who assumes that things will always work out well in the end-- and for her and everyone else in the film, they really do.
Though the movie feels a bit slight in the way it shoves its darker elements over to the side in favor of a neatly wrapped happy ending, it's too fun most of the time to care about any of that. David, as a Nobel Prize-caliber physicist who starts an odd relationship with naive Southern runaway Melodie, fuses his Curb Your Enthusiasm crankiness with Allen's wordy intellectualism into a harmonious hybrid, striking just that right balance of exasperating and endearingly neurotic. And while the pairing of him and Melodie never really makes sense as a character thing, the two of them are wonderful to see bouncing off each other. Wood, coming off her dark and stormy performance in The Wrestler, is like a walking ray of light, a would-be Lolita who's so innocent she never even kisses Boris onscreen. Neither she or Boris are all that much like anyone you've ever met, but courtesy of some clever Allen dialogue and the bravado of David and Wood's performances, they're worth spending a movie with anyway.
The slim story of the romance between Melodie and Boris, which takes place mostly offscreen as the two get married and spend a year together, is bolstered when Melodie's family gets word of the union and marches up to New York themselves to sort things out. Mom (Patricia Clarkson) enters as every pastel-plastered, high-strung Southern lady I grew up loving, and morphs swiftly into a black-clad New York conceptual artist living a life so surprising I'll let you learn about it for yourself. And for Dad (Ed Begley Jr.), in town to retrieve both his wife and his daughter, it takes just one brief encounter at a bar to recruit him as well into the laissez-faire New York relationships everyone else is having. Even Melodie, who loves Boris with all her heart, finds herself enchanted with a British artist living on a boat (Henry Cavill) who, if nothing else, is a bit more age-appropriate.
Amid all this plot there are lots of talky conversations at New York landmarks (Grant's Tomb, Washington Square Park) and outdoor cafes, all of them taking place in the rarefied, mostly made up New York Allen has celebrated throughout his career. It's a joy to see him back in this territory, especially since he even manages to give a fair shake to the Southerners in the meantime; my pet peeve is bad Southern accents in movies, and it's a pleasure to see Wood, Begley Jr. and especially the magnificent Clarkson nail their down-home characters.
Despite the neat ending the story tends to ramble and drop some characters for long periods of time (Boris, in particular, spends much of the film twiddling his thumbs and simply commenting on what everyone else is up to). But as a whole Whatever Works is a fun and funny sit, a dose of old-school Allen (he wrote the script around the same time as Annie Hall) ladled on top of a new New York that, after all these years, still needs him.