- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

“Whatever Works” marks Woody Allen’s return, after four films in Europe, to the cinematic New York he helped create. His re-entry isn’t simply one of location. The film’s a throwback to the old-school Jewish comedies he used to make in the city — no surprise, given that he wrote the script in the 1970s, resurrecting it last year in the face of a possible actors strike.

He clearly reworked the screenplay, with up-to-the-minute references including one to the new president. The result is one of Mr. Allen’s most interesting comedies of recent years, a funny film in a familiar form but brought up to date by some very welcome edgy elements.

Mr. Allen originally wrote the picture for the late Zero Mostel, but it’s hard to imagine anyone better in the role than Larry David — perhaps not even Mr. Allen himself, though this certainly is the sort of character he has played before. Boris Yellnikoff has a pretty easygoing philosophy for a man so neurotic he sings “Happy Birthday” twice to time his hand-washing. “You need to take whatever little pleasure you can find in this chamber of horrors,” he says, insisting that people should simply do “whatever works.”

Boris’ own life isn’t working out too well, though. The former Columbia professor has just broken up with his monied wife and teaches chess to lunkhead children to pay the rent on his small apartment. On his return home one night, he meets Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young woman who has fled her strict, religious parents in Mississippi. She’s camped out on his steps and begs him to let her stay. He finally relents - and finds it hard to get rid of the cutie when she falls in love with him.

Yes, this is an unlikely pairing. He’s bald, she’s beautiful. He’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, she’s a stereotypical Southerner. He’s an expert in string theory, she’s described by him as “a character out of Faulkner, not unlike Benjy.” That, of course, is why they’re attracted to each other. She’s in awe of his intellect, he’s in awe of her awe.

Things get complicated when Melodie’s parents find her — but Mr. Allen has plenty of gleeful surprises for us here. New York has always transformed those open to her charms, and Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.) are no exception.

Actors always seem to give their all for Mr. Allen, and everyone here is hilariously pitch-perfect, especially the raging Mr. David, who shares unexpected comic chemistry with Miss Wood. The themes of luck and fate, oft-explored in Mr. Allen’s films, give the film a real narrative unity.

What make the film so funny, though, are Mr. Allen’s one-liners. They range from the old-fashioned to the shockingly fresh — “That’s an awfully aggressive ensemble,” Boris tells Melodie, who’s dressing for a date with someone else. “Do you want to wind up in an abortion clinic?”

This is a Woody Allen film for every (adult) generation.

STAR RATING:

TITLE: “Whatever Works”

RATING: PG-13 (sexual situations, including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: sonyclassics.com/whateverworks

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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