Can you predict the plot of Whatever Works, the 900,000th movie from Woody Allen? If you guessed, "An older man gets romantically involved with a much, much, much younger woman in a contrived and kind of skeevy script," you're dead right. Fortunately, Allen's well-publicized personal life is apparent nowhere on the screen, and Whatever Works spares us the characters' nauseating romance. In one scene, they're disinterested in each other; in the next, we've jumped forward in time, and the two are married. I don't even think we have to see them kiss. We should count our blessings.
By all accounts, the young girl in Whatever Works is not inspired by Allen's real-life child bride: The Woodster reportedly wrote the script in the '70s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel (long before Soon-Yi was a twinkle in her adoptive papa's eye), and when Mostel died in 1977, the script was shelved. Until now, when Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David took up Mostel's role as Boris Yellnikoff, a bitter misanthrope and self-proclaimed genius. One day Boris comes home to find a runaway (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping on his Manhattan doorstep, and he reluctantly lets her stay at his place until she gets on her feet.
To his credit, Allen has written some wonderful female characters over the years—Annie Hall and Hannah's sisters leap to mind—but Wood's Melodie St. Ann Celestine is not one of them. Wood gamely tries to fill the role of ingénue, but the best thing I can say about her is thank god she's not Scarlett Johansson. Boris is a little deeper—David's dry delivery is occasionally funny, but most of the time he's just reciting lines in that shrill, pinched growl of his, while affecting a bizarre limp (a tribute to Mostel's broad, mugging style of comedy that feels entirely out of place).
Whatever Works could well be the title of Allen's current cinematic style. Like many of his recent films, it feels muted, minimalist, and sometimes downright lazy: the camera stays static, the lines are read, and boom, we're on to the next scene. I've always had the feeling that Allen's best films were a matter of luck; his writing and directorial approach is almost always the same, whether the movie is good or bad. It's a journeyman quality that has resulted in a few wonderful films, and a huge amount of okay ones. In this case, just going with whatever works isn't quite enough.