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Woody Allen’s Whatever hardly Works 

Art imitates life imitates art with Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, starring “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Larry David. On “Curb’s” fourth season, Mel Brooks (fictionally) cast David as the scheming Max Bialystock in the musical The Producers. Nodding to the character’s history, a friend of Brooks asked, incredulously, “Zero Mostel. Nathan Lane. Larry David?”

Whatever Works finds David filling in for Mostel on the big screen. Allen wrote Whatever Works with Mostel in mind, but the larger-than-life actor died in 1977. The writer’s strike inspired Allen to dust off the script and tap David to play Boris Yellnikoff, a former physics professor and Nobel Prize also-ran. Boris spends his days teaching chess to kids and launching into tirades that equate humanity with “imbeciles” and “inchworms.”

Boris reluctantly opens up his narrow world when he shelters Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), an air-headed young runaway from Eden, Miss. Melodie confesses to a crush on Boris, despite his age, irascibility and knobby knees, and her lack of book learnin’ (she gets the Nobel and Oscar mixed up, har-de-har). After she parrots his nihilistic worldview, Boris believes she’s a kindred spirit and marries her.

In addition to the film’s skeevy May-December romance, Allen displays breathtaking condescension to Southerners that makes him seem utterly parochial, despite his recent productions in Europe. Melodie describes her hometown as a Mayberry of fish fries and beauty pageants, while her mother (Patricia Clarkson, the film’s MVP) — whose name happens to be Marietta — travels to New York and turns from overbearing Bible thumper to libidinous bohemian. As played by Wood, “inchworm” proves an unfortunately apt description of Melodie. Over the course of the film, she spends two years in oh-so-sophisticated New York, yet matures by only the tiniest of margins.

Part of problem with Whatever Works is that Boris’ long-winded speeches are both repetitious and fatuous. For a self-styled genius, Boris’ misanthropy feels like a cheap shortcut to reject the world, while giving the appearance of depth. Allen may be aware of this irony, but David’s acting lacks the nuance to flesh out Boris. His pinched, crabbed presence proves delightfully confrontational on “Curb,” where the supporting players give as good as they get, but in Whatever Works, he seems most relaxed in the last act, cracking wise from the sidelines like Groucho Marx. Perhaps colorful, bombastic Zero Mostel could’ve made Boris into a complex kvetch.
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