Beyond 'Woody'

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In our brave new world of psychopharmacology, it was bound to happen. The familiar film persona of Woody Allen now faces a credibility problem.

These days, the “Woody Allen character” — misanthropic, pessimistic, alienated, morose — would likely be diagnosed as clinically depressed and successfully treated with anti-depressants.

Of course, Woody Allen, filmmaker, can’t afford to let the “Woody Allen character” achieve too much mental health: The character’s weltschmerz, existential despair and alienation are central to many of the auteur’s best comedies — the source of their fatalistic humor, high-contrast romantic mismatches and much else.

The filmmaker has taken a stab at resolving his dilemma in his latest film, “Whatever Works,” released on video last week (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray $26.99, DVD $17.99). Here, the Woody surrogate is Boris Yellnikoff  (Larry David, in the Woody-surrogate tradition of Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs, among others). Cantankerous, anhedonic and suicidally depressed, Boris is a “genius” ex-physicist-turned-bohemian recluse who sees through the comforting tissue of illusion that envelops the rest of us.

How do you explain such chronic misery in an age of readily prescribed Zoloft and Prozac? Easy: Boris, as he reveals to his wife in a backstory break-up scene, has gone “off his meds.”

Nice try. But in having Boris go “off his meds,” the filmmaker has simply exchanged one credibility problem for another. The film revolves around Boris’ personal credo — “Whatever works.” Faced with the hopeless, pointless predicament that is human existence, Boris advises, seize happiness — however fleeting or illusory — wherever you find it: Ménages a trois, recreational drugs, music or socially taboo May-December romances like Boris’ with teenaged runaway Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) — whatever works.

Whatever works … except anti-depressants? Whatever works, in other words, except what “works” best and, in Boris’ worlds (Manhattan’s academic and bohemian milieux, successively) carries no social stigma? What objections could Boris — an atheist, a scientist — possibly have to taking his meds?

No, there’s a more intractable conflict here between art and science — yeah, another one of those — than Woody Allen can resolve by having Boris Yellnikoff “go off his meds.”

It’s a cultural milestone of sorts: The “Woody Allen character” has quietly become an anachronism, dramatically implausible in his own contemporary cultural habitat.

It’s hard not to wonder what range of human character types we are on the verge of pathologizing out of the dramatic repertoire of the future. Perhaps it’s a good thing we’ll be too happy to care.

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