Woody Allen has never made a movie I didn’t like. Even the ones that no one seems to like, like Interiors, September, and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, I love. But as I settled into the first 5 minutes of Whatever Works, I was afraid that a new precedent would be set. I don’t really watch TV and have never seen “Curb Your Enthusiam,” and only know Larry David from the tiny roles he has played in early Woody Allen films. Right away, I didn’t care for him much, but then he is playing an extremely unlikeable character. When Woody broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the audience in Annie Hall, it flowed naturally, and worked to make viewer experience the story with him. When Larry David begins to talk the camera in the opening minutes of Whatever Works, it seems forced and hostile. When Evan Rachel Wood shows up a runaway from the South who is sleeping on his doorstep, the situation seems pretty implausible. But as the two characters are visiting Grant’s Tomb in a getting-to-know-you scene, Larry David cracks a joke and I actually laughed out loud. I warmed to the movie and started to enjoy it, and of course things picked up considerably when the always excellent Patricia Clarkson shows up as the mother of Wood’s character. Her radical transformation, from a chuch-going, pie-baking mom to a Bohemian artist, while not entirely plausible, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film.
Eventually, the various plot threads come together and Woody makes a statement about life and love that is quite moving. Supposedly, Woody wrote this back in the ’70s, with the idea of casting Zero Mostel in the central role, and set the script aside after Mostel died in 1977, but it is hard not to think that he did a pretty major rewrite, to imbue it with what is a surprisingly mature perspective.