I’ve always been a big Woody Allen fan. Yes, even through his period of being publicly crucified for Soon-Yi and allegations of pedophilia (which I simply never believed). Woody Allen’s always been an easy target: an intellectual who makes films that a large portion of the population just don’t “get”. Add to that the fact that he’s not attractive in any classic sense (unless you’re attracted to intellect) and you have a recipe for harsh criticism and judgment. People have historically always been afraid of what they don’t understand. And it’s been my experience that when people are afraid, they tend to turn that fear into resentment. And that resentment is only a fine line away from outright hatred and hostility.
But luckily, the folks who get Woody Allen really get Woody Allen. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer, a brilliant comedian, and a brilliant filmmaker. He is also one of the most prolific. And as a result, not every film is a masterpiece. But they almost ALL have something to offer. And so many are downright masterful, in my opinion; MANHATTAN, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, HUSBANDS AND WIVES, ANNIE HALL, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, LOVE AND DEATH, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO… And there are so many more to add to that ever-growing list. And despite the fact that Mr. Allen claims his films are in no way autobiographical, many of us still tend to believe that his films are, at the very least, a deep reflection of the man and his psyche.
His newest film, WHATEVER WORKS, while not one of his greatest endeavors, is still a smart and entertaining film with some wonderful performances. Particularly from Evan Rachel Wood. Unfortunately, what keeps the film down, in this viewer’s opinion, is its star and Woody-Allen-alter-ego, Larry David (in a role originally written for the late Zero Mostel). Brilliant in his own series CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, David is out of his element here. And that is odd because, on the surface, he seems the perfect choice. Ironically, David’s character in the film discovers that things which seem great on paper–communism, capitalism, his own marriage–don’t necessarily work in the real world. And so it is with Larry David in a Woody Allen film. Uncomfortable, detached, wooden are all words that come to mind when I think of David’s performance in this film. In many ways, it feels like these takes were rehearsals where David was saving himself for the real mccoy and therefore only giving 25%. Now whether the fault lies with David or Allen, I couldn’t say. What I can say is I never bought the character for a second. Now part of the problem David faced here was that he was, essentially, standing in for Allen himself. And for those of us who love Woody Allen and that persona, well, we’d just rather see Woody Allen do it. But Mr. Allen is older than Mr. David and, since this character ends up on the receiving end of the affections of a much younger, quite beautiful woman, Mr. Allen would have only been welcoming more of the criticism and public beatings he has worked so hard to move beyond.
I’ve also been told that Mr. David did not initially want to do this role. If true, perhaps he was afraid that he would not be up to the task and that his performance would end up much as it has. Or perhaps his fear of failure became somewhat of a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows? What is clear is that Larry David is not an actor. And I’m guessing he’d be among the first to say so.
WHATEVER WORKS made me yearn for Woody Allen’s physical presence. Had Larry David managed to enter the skin of the character and make it his own, I would have been overjoyed and not missed Allen at all. But that is not the case. Even in recent Allen films like VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, we find ourselves in the world of Woody-speak, the rhythm, the words, the phrasings… But that’s a good thing. Mozart sounded like Mozart, Michael Jackson like Michael Jackson, Martin Scorcese like Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen like Woody Allen… It’s a stylized approach. People don’t necessarily sound in art the way they do in the real world. But this is how people sound in the world of a Woody Allen film. And it’s a world I love being in. And some actors just slip in there effortlessly.
Sadly, Larry David does not. And while he seemed like a great idea on paper, he is not able to take Allen’s words and make them his own in any way. He’s a stand-in, a distant second. And a very weak link in an otherwise entertaining film.