This morning I had the dubious pleasure of seeing Woody Allen’s latest exercise in comedic acrimony, Whatever Works. Starring Larry David as the newest broker of Allen's brand of terminally hung-up comic compulsivity, Whatever Works is a truly exasperating film for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s nothing new here. A sloppy retread over numerous tropes of Allen’s more serious social comedy, his latest has David as brilliant particle physicist Boris Yellnikoff who, after rebounding from a botched suicide attempt with little more than a limp, abandons his upper-crust lifestyle to pursue the existence of a boho curmudgeon.
Sustaining himself on a steady diet of caffeine, canned sardines and misanthropy, David's Boris moans to his friends (who for the most part don’t have names or at all developed identities) and the audience about how his superior intellect is wasted amidst a failed species so consumed by their delusions of significance. It’s familiar territory for Allen, who more productively mined the comic possibilities of waxing all Cliff Notes-existential on life, love and the human condition in flicks like Stardust Memories, Manhattan and Annie Hall. Allen apparently wrote Whatever Works in the 70s, and it makes sense, considering that David essentially plays a balder, broader-shouldered version of the type of character Allen himself inhabited in many of his better films.
I guess it comes as no huge surprise that the preposterously prolific writer/director/clarinet hobbyist has run out of ideas. After all, being as this is like his two hundredth movie, his body of work is as distended as other cinematic giants like Hitchcock or Takashi Miike. What’s more obnoxious than his creative stagnation, though, is the audaciousness inherent in Whatever Works.
Sure, Woody Allen has always been one of American cinema’s preeminent navel-gazers. But as we see a beautiful southern runaway (Evan Rachel Wood) somehow fall in love with David’s crotchety killjoy, any sense of a tolerably charming egoism nose-dives into full blown vapid narcissism. Because Whatever Works is a flaccid, faux-urbane Manhattanite picture, and not some Ralph Bakshi fantasy, Rachel Wood’s Melodie eventually (SPOILER ALERT!!!) gets over Boris, ending up in the arms of some charismatically predatory actor type who lives in a houseboat. But still, how can Allen (or David) pretend to entertain the notion that even the most blissfully naïve of down-home hayseeds could fall for some kvetching prick who insists on reminding her how monumentally unintelligent she is?
This opens up another can of comedic worms, which is exacerbated all the more by plopping Larry David in the centre of this movie. When did being an unlikeable malcontent become so funny? Since Woody Allen? Certainly it’s something David has been profiting from since Seinfeld, but almost two decades later—yeah, that’s right, Seinfeld is almost twenty years old—the whole shtick is becoming a bit strained.
David himself tends to pull it off consistently well on Curb Your Enthusiasm, if only because it seems inherently funny to see celebrities prod at their own public personas (see: The Larry Sanders Show, Dr. Katz), but Whatever Works stretches the whole grumbling-grouch-with-a-heart-of-gold routine as far as it can go. It’s worth remembering that despite his contemporary placement atop the pantheon of structured social gracelessness, Larry David in no way invented the idea of “awkwardness.” (That crown uneasily sits atop the stress-bald domes of comics like Bob Newhart or indeed, Allen himself.) And with up-starts like Michael Cera constituting the ranks of social ineptitude’s hemming-and-hawing new guard, the whole conceit of comic awkwardness has evolved into a real-deal contagion spilling out of the screen.
We all have friends who get off on relating encounters that were allegedly “awkward” in one way or another, and we probably even do it ourselves. But what’s so funny about this? In my more fleetingly self-reflexive moments, it seems to me that taking pleasure in this sort of thing is just the latest vogue of mean spirited self-absorption: like taking Homer Simpson’s ill-bred “their clothes are different from our clothes” ignorance and dressing it up for the too-hip young sophisticate.
Yes. Human interactions are often inelegant, strained and downright “awkward.” Relishing social gaucherie to the extent that we now do, however, seems to be working only to annul social and cultural difference. Not only is laughing at the apparent awkwardness of others just kind of mean, but laughing at your own calculated public clumsiness seems little more than the worst kind of fashionable reverse-narcissism. Whatever happened to the days when an unplanned, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with a stranger taught us something about the shared condition of humanity, instead of merely providing an opportunity to indulge the wry comedics of social alienation?
And back to the point, I guess, whatever happened to the days (well before I was born, I’ll confess) when there was the distinct possibility that a Woody Allen movie might actually be worth seeing?