Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
After a five year absence, Woody Allen returns to Manhattan with Whatever Works, an affable comedy about a neurotic misanthrope and the southern belle who befriends him. Many reviews note that the movie pales in comparison to Allen’s best work, and I’d argue it’s an unfair comparison. The writer/director is extraordinarily prolific, making around one movie a year, so of course his efforts don’t always equal Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Rather than waste your time discussing the movie’s place in Allen’s oeuvre, I’ll just say Whatever Works is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year, and left me with a silly grin as I left the theater.
Larry David stars as Boris, a former physicist who thinks less of everyone around him. He spends most conversation discussing the failure of the human race, and the awe his singular genius should inspire. As a chess tutor, Boris is not afraid to berate his young pupils, much to the chagrin of their mouth-breathing parents. It’s a comfortable existence, one that’s taken into a tailspin when Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), an impressionable young girl, shows up at his doorstep. Boris reluctantly agrees to take her in, and the two begin an odd romance. Melody takes on Boris’ neuroses – she discusses the inevitably of death, and dismisses others around her as “inchworms.” Much to Melody’s chagrin, her mother Marietta (the lovely Patricia Clarkson) shows up at the doorstep, and immediately seeks to replace Boris. Things get even more complicated when Melody’s two-timing father (Ed Begley Jr.) arrives. The entire family experiences culture-shock, and their love lives transform in unlikely ways.
On paper, the Boris character sounds like a tedious bore. Those familiar with Curb Your Enthusiasm already know that Larry David makes his character strangely likable. Boris amuses himself with his misanthropy, and while he may harbor low opinions of everyone, his gleefully brutal honesty is the source of the movie’s biggest laughs. Melody is a good foil – her cheerful ignorance of Boris’ insults makes her a perfect match. Evan Rachel Wood gives her a southern sweetness which masks a considerable intelligence – it’s a solid performance from an actress who is routinely dismissed. Naturally Clarkson and Begley have no problem with Allen’s rich dialog. The director films Manhattan with cheerfully bright colors, and employs familiar stylistic flourishes. With superlative monologues, Boris bookends the movie by breaking the fourth wall, and even if the “talking to the audience” jokes aren’t fresh, they’re delivered with a snappiness that’ll ensure laughs. Allen’s thematic material will also be familiar to fans. It should come as no surprise that after an extended absence from New York, Whatever Works highlights the city’s transformative power. Some of the best scenes involve Melody’s parents, and how access to culture and diversity ease them out of their shell. And like Allen’s best lighthearted comedies, characters tackle the most serious subjects with incisively hilarious one-liners.
Comedies are difficult to do well. Too often they condescendingly rely on gross-outs and catchphrases. Allen is far more thoughtful – he shrewdly defines who these people are, and lets the laugh grow from how they interact. Yes, such an approach elicits rich laughs, but it also gives Allen an opportunity to thoughtfully comment on the lives of his characters. What he manages to accomplish is kind of amazing. Longtime fans will find Whatever Works to be as comforting as a familiar handshake. And even if this is your first exposure to the director, I’m sure Boris’ jovial verbal abuse will inspire you to check out Allen’s earlier efforts.
Here are other movies in which world-weary New Yorkers deliver remarkably memorable one-liners:
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Oh, I know that Tony Scott, the world’s most inconsistent director, recently helmed a 21st century update starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Surely you knew that such a clunky title had its origins in a fantastic 70s thriller, and a novel preceding it. The premise is essentially the same – a ruthless criminal takes a subway car hostage, and an unlikely negotiator must stop him. In the older version, Walter Matthau plays the transit cop, and Robert Shaw plays the coldly efficient kidnapper. The business of the crime and its resolution are secondary to the movie’s real highlight, the secondary characters who provide nonstop color commentary. Consider a transit official who wonders aloud, “How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?” And I won’t spoil the best scenes, which are between the unpopular New York mayor and his cynical staff. Like Dog Day Afternoon, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three wisely focuses on the human aspects of the hostage situation, and not the potential for violence. Sure, there are tense moments and plot twists, but so many thrillers forget about dialog and character development. This one gets it right, and as an added bonus, Tarantino fans will learn the origin of one his more noteworthy references.
Party Girl. I’ve written about Parker Posey before, and here is yet another example of a starring Posey vehicle that only sometimes works. Instead of the Nora the hotel worker, we have Mary the party promoter. She creates her own fashions, seems to know everyone, and delivers laconic lines that drip with irony. But problems seep into her life – she’s taking too many drugs, running out of money, and an eviction notice seems imminent. The solution? Learn the Dewey decimal system, of course! Party Girl chronicles Mary’s transformation into a sexy librarian, and while there are brief flashes of brilliance, the movie falters overall. Perhaps Mary’s friends are too shallow, or we never get a sense that she’s in any real danger. But like the Taking of Pelham, Party Girl will win you over with its memorable dialog. Those familiar with Posey’s work won’t be surprised to learn that she exudes the same charm found in The House of Yes and Broken English. At first Mary is a grossly incompetent librarian, and even though she is correctly reprimanded, there’s something so endearing about a surly Posey shouting, “You don’t think I’m smart enough to work in your fucking library?” Hell, there’s even a discussion of Sisyphus that would make Aldous Huxley proud. Yes, the movie has its flaws, yet it ultimately wins me over, and not just because I find sexy librarians irresistible.
Roger Dodger. This movie is one of my all-time favorites, and deserves to become a classic. Campbell Scott plays Roger, a womanizing ad executive whose biggest weapon is his dizzying verbal dexterity. The movie begins with Roger discussing the need for men to demonstrate utility in the wooing process, and laments how evolution will bring about “man’s inevitable obsolescence.” Soon he has two big surprises – his girlfriend Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) dumps him, and his nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives at the office. Nick wants to learn how to talk to women, and Roger gladly accepts a young disciple. The movie follows the dubious twosome as they wander New York City, where they eventually meet two lovely women played by Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals (soooo hot). As the night continues, it’s a delight to hear the characters converse – amidst all the wit, there’s even substantial insight about the dating game, and what women find attractive. Of course, Roger’s condescending manner cannot last forever, and soon after he drunkenly crashes his ex’s party, he learns a little about himself, and how such a lifestyle will hinder any chance at happiness. Only a smart actor could make such a casually misogynistic character likable, and Scott pulls it off. Even though it’s a horrible thing to say, I still laugh when he tells a woman, “What you think of as your personality is nothing but a collection of Vanity Fair articles.” Ok, so the gentle, more mature Roger is not so amusing, yet it’s a delight to watch him transform.
That’s it for this “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next time when I defend a beautiful French woman.