Whatever Works – Woody Allen (2009)



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.

Gran Torino – Clint Eastwood (2009)



If there were an Academy Award for Best Growling in a Motion Picture (and there should be), Clint Eastwood would be the prohibitive favorite every time out. Sure, the bravado and the mean, chiseled face are the hallmarks of Clint the actor, but the squinty-eyed snarl is his signature, and he delivers it here with a gritty, spittle-flecked flourish.

Whatever else Gran Torino is or isn’t, it’s at least a master class in the irascibility that Eastwood has perfected over his 50-plus years in showbiz.

The grumbler this time is Walt Kowalski, the latest incarnation in a long line of tough-guy cinematic curmudgeons. Walt is an implacable Korean War veteran and retired autoworker mourning the recent death of his wife. He doesn’t really understand the modern American society that has, it seems, suddenly sprung up around his neighborhood in the guise of the Hmong families who represent the new face of his block.

Walt’s heyday, much like Eastwood’s, was that of the strong, silent type, but that knuckle-down and by-the-bootstraps attitude has ceased to be a common trait, especially in his two absentee sons. And boy, does that piss him off.

When a strait-laced Hmong boy from next door, Thao (Bee Vang), is bullied by his gangbanger cousin into stealing Walt’s pristine ’72 Ford Gran Torino, it sets off a chain of events that leads Walt and Thao’s family into the arena of uneasy friendship. Walt discovers, much to his surprise, that once he gets past the weird names and odd customs, he actually likes them.

Gangbangers, unfortunately, don’t just shoo away nicely.

Newcomer Vang is serviceable as Thao, and Ahney Her is charming as Sue, Thao’s sister, who initiates the bond between Thao and Walt, but this ride is all about Clint being Clint. Torino is possibly his last real go at the Little Golden Man (for Best Actor, at least, which he’s never won), and he won’t let us forget that, even squeezing in a wistful little piano ballad to round out his filmic omnipresence.

It is tempting to ascribe the film the power to address societal problems, but it doesn’t possess it. To say it’s a microcosm of intercultural relations strays too far from the point. It’s about one old man and one troubled kid. Culture and race are themes, but it’s no more a cultural essay than, say, The Karate Kid.

What these characters share is an ability to fill the voids left by absent – emotionally or physically – sons and fathers. Where Gran Torino fails at social criticism, it succeeds at capturing an engrossing snapshot of the human saga.

If it’s Clint’s last film, it’s a perfect ending.

Gigantic – Matt Aselton (2009)



It’s always a crapshoot when a new Zooey Deschanel film comes out. Sometimes it’s a wonderful show of skill by a gifted actress breaking free and taking us on a vivid journey. The rest of the time, we get the opposite: maddeningly quirk-filled indie-film coffins that take us six feet under with her. Gigantic (out on DVD this week) falls into the latter category.

Deschanel plays Harriet “Happy” Lolly in writer-director Matt Aselton’s debut feature about a lonely mattress salesman, Brian (Paul Dano), attempting to adopt a baby from China. After Happy’s father (John Goodman) buys a mattress from Brian’s store, Happy shows up to pay for it and falls for Brian’s story and kind, quiet mannerisms.

It’s material that Aselton never seems to be in control of, giving us alternately flat comedy and dry drama. It’s a film completely lacking in energy, focus and passion: three principal reasons to stay in your theater chair. That it attracted so many stars (including indie super-producer Christine Vachon) is mind-boggling.

The subject of adoption is approached like a quirky eccentricity, a storyline used for a laugh and to build the tension between boy and girl instead of a life-altering undertaking. That the gender roles are swapped in this case is made irrelevant by the enclosed nature of the story. Brian is never seen going through the rigorous process of adopting a child – he never has to leave his own world, except to briefly dip his toe into the waters of the Lolly lifestyle.

Instead, his main hurdle is the long waiting list. He kills time by skinny-dipping in a public pool with Happy and ’shrooming in the Vermont woods with his father and brothers while a crazed homeless man (Zach Galifianakis) inexplicably tries to assassinate him – not exactly future foster parent behavior.

Dano rocked the foundations of his character’s Little Boston church in There Will Be Blood, but he’s miscast here. While it’s a one-off for Dano, Gigantic is a backbreaker for Deschanel. She is the closest thing we’re likely to get to an American Anna Karina, but her choices leave much to be desired. Like her work in Yes ManFlakesEulogy and, to a lesser degree, the recently released (500) Days of Summer, her performance in Gigantic fails to deliver on the early promise she displayed in All the Real Girls and Almost Famous, six and nine years ago, respectively. How many more of these roles can her popularity absorb before something gives? She’s never worked with a director as strong as Jean-Luc Godard, it’s true, but she’s never gone back to the few good directors she’s worked with (or perhaps she hasn’t been invited back). Her random luck with mainstream flirtations (ElfThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have kept her in a Winona Ryder-esque bubble of security, but right now it’s the personal charm more than anything else that keeps us tuned in. How much longer?