DVD Release Date:  October 27, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  June 26, 2009 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time:  92 min.
Director:  Woody Allen
Actors:  Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Conleth Hill

Whatever Works, the title of writer/director Woody Allen's latest comedy, sums up the philosophy of the film's main character, Boris Yellnikoff, and of Allen himself. The filmmaker, who famously left Mia Farrow and married her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, has lived out a no-judgments view of human nature that is reflected in his film scripts and characters.

In Whatever Works, Boris Yellnikoff sneers at most everyone. A gray-haired know-it-all, Boris rants with gusto, and, in one of the film's more audacious gambles, speaks directly to audience, acknowledging that we're captive to the theories and ideas that have informed his life.

Boris has strong opinions about any number of subjects, and he lays out several of them in the film's opening minutes, as he launches a diatribe at a group of friends who eat and socialize with the crotchety character. Allen's screenplay has Boris address the role of religion straightaway, and straightaway we know that Boris and Allen have drawn lazy, ill-informed conclusions about the Christian faith—all the better for creating straw men and knocking them down. Jesus was a good guy, but his teachings are based on the fallacious notion that people are fundamentally decent. (Has Boris, or Allen, ever bothered to read the Gospels?) People need to live according to "whatever works," as long as no one gets hurt.

"I'm not a likable guy," he explains up front, and "this is not a feel-good movie." Turns out Boris is a divorced hypochondriac who, upon learning of his wife's unfaithfulness, leapt out of their apartment window in an attempted suicide but had his fall broken by a canopy. Saddled with a limp but nothing worse, he soldiers on, railing against the "family values morons" and "the gun morons."

Boris is as surprised as his friends when Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a much younger woman raised by a strict Christian mother, develops a crush on Boris. She endures his put-downs with a smile and eventually gets him to agree to marry her. Their surprising courtship-full of several laugh-out-loud moments-comprises the first half of Whatever Works, as we see Boris soften under Melody's influence.

The film pivots into cruel stereotyping halfway through the story, when Melody's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), tracks her down. Marietta's Christian beliefs are put to the test by Boris, who exasperates her at every turn, but she soon gives up the fight altogether. The source of her moral collapse is one of Boris' younger friends, an art aficionado who sees merit in Marietta's photography and launches her into a libidinous artist's life, complete with a ménage à trois.

As if that weren't enough, Marietta rejects the pleas of John, the man who abandoned her and Melody for another woman, when he shows up to beg forgiveness and ask her back into his life. Her cool reaction sends John to a nearby bar, where he confesses lifelong homosexual feelings to a gay customer. The two men are shown as a happy couple in the film's final scene.

Happiness is the goal of life, according to Whatever Works, but the film's live-and-let-live attitude has no place for characters who are Christians, political conservatives or anyone who dares to combine the two. But in the film's worldview, there's hope yet for such characters, as soon as they embrace a libertine lifestyle that's contrary to Scripture. The humorous tone of the film celebrates the characters' decisions and sneers at anyone who would dare to question their lifestyle choices.

It's an appalling message and an obvious lie. Allen wrote the original draft of Whatever Works in the 1970s, around the time of Annie Hall, which won the 1977 Oscar for Best Picture. That film, for many Allen aficionados, represents the apex of the filmmaker's comedic efforts, long before Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow unraveled and his tumultuous public life became tabloid fodder. Annie Hall was soon followed by Manhattan, which stars Allen as a man smitten with a much younger woman. Whatever Works, from that same era, further confirms Allen's fondness for May-December romances.

But enough with the psycho-analysis. It's enough to say that those who disapprove of Allen's off-camera life will disapprove of the on-camera musings and behavior of Boris. Even those who laugh during the film's first half will discover that Whatever Works leaves a bad aftertaste. Unlike Allen's Match Point or Cassandra's Dream—serious dramas that explored life-and-death consequences of moral failing—Whatever Works takes a "que sera, sera" attitude to life and love, with a happy ending that feels entirely false but which is designed to leave viewers with a smile on their faces as they leave the theater.

Feel free to scowl instead. A comedy that delivers actual laughs—and which allows the audience to laugh at its main character—has, by its conclusion, turned into a postmodern screed against anyone who would dare to question another person's moral decisions. Allen may think that works for him, but for others, it won't work at all.


Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@verizon.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Some drinking; a character asks for a drink "with the most alcohol in it"; drugs are smoked; a romance between two men begins over drinks at a bar.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; inflammatory comments about race; some foul language and terms like "cracker"; discussion about prostitutes; a marquee displays the name of band called Anal Sphincter; joke about how concentration camps show true human nature.
  • Violence/Suicide:  A man leaps out of an apartment window but survives; he threatens to throw a woman out the window; a second unsuccessful suicide attempt.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Discussion of a spouse's infidelity; a woman discusses love-making, and a man responds, "That's the most disgusting story I've ever heard!"; a man comments favorably on a woman's breasts and behind; Boris says he's praying that a man has herpes; kissing; a woman and two men are shown sleeping alongside each other in bed; a photo exhibit includes several nude images; a man grabs a woman's backside.
  • Marriage/Divorce:  A woman says her husband left her to pursue a relationship with another woman; she then tries to set up her married daughter with another man; the man returns, confesses his sin and begs forgiveness, but later reveals that he's had homosexual tendencies all along; he enters into a gay relationship with a man he meets at a bar; Marietta moves in with two men and enters into a ménage-a-trois.
  • Religion:  The universe is described as completely random, with human pairings being the result of the most random of chance occurrences; a woman raised by a Bible-believing mother explains that she was raised to believe that "the good Lord has a plan" and that "His eye is on the sparrow," to which Boris responds, "I pity the sparrow"; a woman says she lost her virginity before marriage and therefore isn't going to heaven; prayer is mocked as a "Christian superstition"; a Christian woman suspects secular humanists may be behind her daughter's departure from her childhood faith; a woman's declaration that abortion is murder is greeted with derision; a woman claims to be a psychic.