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Whatever Works hardly works

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It's a fact that several of Woody Allen's movies have found him paired on-screen with women decades his junior (Mira Sorvino, Tiffani Thiessen, Mariel Hemingway, etc.). But with Whatever Works, it appears the 73-year-old filmmaker finally drew the line and elected to pair 21-year-old Evan Rachel Wood with someone closer to her own age.

So he sent in 62-year-old Larry David to pinch-hit.

David, the star of TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm, essays the role of Boris Yellnikoff, who has nothing but contempt for everyone and everything. Into his life stumbles a Southern runaway named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (a charming Wood), and although he treats her with the same level of disdain as he treats the rest of humanity, she ends up falling for him. And in the face of her inherent goodness (to say nothing of her short-shorts), he finds his defenses weakening just a tad -- enough, anyway, to marry the ill-educated child. But their happiness could be short-lived once Melodie's Bible-thumping mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) arrives from the Deep South and immediately tries to break them apart.

As written, the role of Manhattan misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff could not have been played by Allen himself: Despite his advanced age, ordinary features and off-screen antics, the actor has always displayed a soft, even romantic edge in his characterizations, and he wouldn't have been up to the challenge of portraying a loathsome, self-absorbed individual whose venomous diatribes are aimed even at his friends and loved ones. Yet there's the fundamental problem with Whatever Works: David's character is so rancorous -- and his performance so one-note (this isn't acting as much as it's a standup comic turn captured on celluloid) -- that the couple's relationship is only believable when filtered through Allen's own lecherous sensibilities.

I've always embraced the idea that more human contact between dissimilar types would crumble many long-standing prejudices, so I responded favorably to Allen's notion that all it takes is a trip to liberal New York for the repressed Marietta to discover nude art and the joys of a ménage a trois, and for Melodie's conservative, NRA-loving dad (Ed Begley Jr.) to discover his latent homosexual tendencies. But for the most part, this is a rehash of themes, discussions, jokes and characters we've seen countless times in past Woody Allen efforts. One ultimately gets the impression that when scripting Whatever Works, Allen was hardly working.

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