Calling Whatever Works "vintage Woody Allen" implies that it's a classic, not some musty relic of yore. In truth, it's a dusty script pulled from a file cabinet's dark recesses after 30-odd years, and then sprinkled with some self-consciously "hip" references to liven things up. For context's sake, the lead was originally intended for Zero Mostel, but he died in 1977. Now, the film's cranky theoretical physicist Boris Yellnikoff is Larry David, who offers the same grouchy, scratch-throated persona for which he's famous.
The story: Once a Nobel Prize candidate, Boris now spends days teaching chess to spoiled nitwits and shambling around the Lower East Side grumbling about inescapable entropy, rap music and the general pointlessness of human life — even his suicide attempt failed. He's jolted out of melancholy when a bubbly Southern-fried naïf appears with a name as silly as her demeanor, Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood).
Imagine Annie Hall cooked down to its base components, blanched free of surprise, passion or magic, a syrupy mess. What was once a vaguely charming May-December romance is now a full-on creepfest, with sixtysomething David drooling over twentysomething Wood, and, while the sex is off-screen, one Viagra joke is one too many. Woody can't win for losing, dammed if he does or doesn't. David's the latest in a long line of failed surrogates, betraying the dirty secret. Besides, nobody could deliver this material as well as Woody himself, but age and the faint odor of personal life have all but ruined his lovable onscreen image. Allen has a naughty '60s cocktail party notion of ménage à trois, as if this were still the most shocking thing imaginable to middle-class sensibilities, and he writes these bits like he's getting away with something, which he may have ... once.
Equally troubling is that after showing something like growth in his portrayal of women in last year's saucy Vicky Christina Barcelona, here the ladies are either icy manipulators or bubbleheads waiting to be taught like Eliza Doolittle.
In sum, there are still plenty of scattered laughs — Woody's one-liner chops are impeccable — but the once-cute middle-aged grump is a full-blown crank. Ah, well; just like Woody, we'll always have Manhattan.
At the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].