Pairing fellow ne’er-do-wells Woody Allen and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David together is an idea so natural that it comes as a forehead-slapping shock that it actually happened. Peanut butter and jelly come to mind at the idea of the perfect synthesis of these two bespectacled hypochondriacs illuminating the screen in tandem; for as much as they laid down a basic thematic principle for Woody, the jokes at the beginning of Annie Hall (“The food here is terrible, and in such small portions!”) could sum up David’s style just as well. Here are two guys of similar neurotic Brooklyn upbringings who are both nonplused that anyone finds them interesting. On paper, it’s a perfect fit.
What works on paper, however, does not always translate onscreen. Then again, perhaps judging Whatever Works against the very idea of comedic perfection is asking too much.
Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is the definition of a misanthrope: He hates you; he doesn’t know you, but he thinks you are a submoronic inchworm anyway. Yellnikoff’s philosophy boils down to the simple concept that life is miserable, and in such a small portion. Thus, “Whatever works,” he says, to get through it. He likes to remind people that he is a man with a huge-beyond-comprehension worldview – a self-satisfied perspective with the end result of a full-on mortality crisis that leads him to divorce and attempted suicide.
But this misery that starts as a scathing lament for the failed human species ends up a tender, funny meditation on the staggering mathematical improbability of everyday chance encounters, like when a Mississippi street urchin named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) charms her way into Boris’s apartment and, eventually, into his life. What follows is an astute movie about existential torment and impractical desire.Whatever Works won’t set the world on fire but it has more than its share of riotously hysterical moments and delicious absurdities.
David does not play the “Woody role” as such. Boris was originally written for the huge shoes (and belt) of Zero Mostel in the 1970s, but could not be made before he died. Therefore, the film comes off as a throwback to Allen’s older, quick-witted verbal comedy. The script was revived thanks to the threat of an actors’ strike that never materialized. This is not the first time David has stepped into Mostel’s shoes – the fourth season of Curb featured David stepping into Mostel’s role in The Producers – but the problem is that every other character is in a Woody Allen film, while Boris feels ripped directly from Curb. The character is not enough of a stretch from the Larry David of the TV show to bridge the gap in styles.