Attempting to impress his ideologies on religion, relationships, and the randomness (and worthlessness) of existence, lifelong New York resident Boris Yellnikoff rants to anyone who will listen, including the audience. But when he begrudgingly allows naive Mississippi runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine to live in his apartment, his reclusive rages give way to an unlikely friendship and Boris begins to mould the impressionable young girl's worldly views to match his own. When it comes to love, "whatever works" is his motto, but his already perplexed life complicates itself further when Melodie's parents eventually track her down.
Woody Allen wrote the script for Whatever Works more than 30 years ago as a starring vehicle for Zero Mostel. One can only wish the dreary comedy about an egotistical misogynist had expired along with Mostel, who died in 1977.
I don’t blame Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, who bravely takes on the role of the brilliant, bigoted and self-pitying Boris Yellnikoff, for the film’s abject failure in the US, where it grossed a measly $5.3 million.
The culprit is the writer-director for creating such a loathsome, unattractive character and expecting audiences to give a toss about the absurd and unfunny situations he faces. A once eminent physicist who now teaches kids how to play chess, Boris wears Harvard sweatshirts and plaid shorts, walks with a limp (after landing on a canopy in a failed suicide attempt) and regales his few friends (it’s amazing he has any) with his bilious views about humanity and the universe.
Into his life comes Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a dumb, impressionable but cute-looking 21-year-old who’s run away from home in the Deep South. Boris reluctantly agrees to let her stay for a few days, which stretches into months while she gets a job as a dog-walker. Only in Allen’s fantasies would a naïve young woman, no matter how dim, fall for an elderly crackpot who calls her a "brainless little twit," "inchworm" and worse, unless she’s a gold-digger and he’s a billionaire, which isn’t the case here.
This most unlikely couple get married, but you can bet this union won’t last long, especially after Melody’s Bible-spouting mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) lands on their doorstep. Marietta (who cares so little for her daughter, she didn’t know she’d got hitched) is hurt and angry after her husband left her for their best friend. After fainting, Marietta takes an instant dislike to Boris and is soon scheming to help handsome actor Randy (Henry Cavill) win over Melody. More complications ensue as Marietta undergoes a transformation and her repentant husband John (Ed Begley Jr.) turns up, but none of it makes much sense.
The implausible twists and turns may be forgivable if the characters were funny and were given witty dialogue, but the film fails on both counts. There are very few memorable one-liners; the best poke fun at the National Rifle Association (an easy target) and automatic toilets.
Boris’ cynicism and nihilism get mighty tiresome and some of his vitriolic put-downs verge on the cruel. His rants straight to camera seem contrived and are a poor attempt to pretend the audience is 'in’ on the jokes, or lack thereof.
The usually terrific Clarkson struggles to make her outlandish character believable, while Evan Rachel Wood has the joyless task of playing a ditzy blonde who’d be right at home in The Dukes of Hazzard.
Allen has acknowledged of Boris, "He doesn’t express me exactly – he’s an extreme exaggeration of my feelings." Which makes me think the Wood-man has a very gloomy, pessimistic view of a world he sees as filled with morons and cretins.