Oh, Woody! You Came Home to New York Only to Disappoint Me

c rexwhateverworks Oh, Woody! You Came Home to New York Only to Disappoint Me  Whatever Works
Running time 92 minutes
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring  Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Henry Cavill

On the face of the Woody Allen canon, Whatever Works is a zit. I once wrote that Woody Allen on a bad day was better than everybody else on Sunday. Too many bad movies later, I don’t know where he is on Sunday In Whatever Works, he comes home after frittering away his time in Europe, but doesn’t really bother to show up at all.

The first thing you hear is Groucho Marx singing “Hello, I Must Be Going.” It serves as the theme of a flip-flop movie that shifts gears more often than a bankrupt Chrysler. To some, all great ideas are based on the premise that people are basically decent beneath their flaws, but to Larry David’s Boris Yellnikoff, an unpleasant, aging Jewish curmudgeon and failed has-been physicist with a look of terminal colic, everyone is a fully developed A-hole. His philosophy is “Whatever works.” By his own admission, he’s not likable, and this is not the feel-good movie of the year. Omega 3’s, pelvic sonograms, fresh fruit and veggies, gyms, blogs, technology, retirement portfolios, family values, eggs from free-range chickens—to Boris, they’re all diabolical rip-offs invented to make life more miserable and pretentious than it already is. Boris is a metaphor for Woody Allen (who would have been a great improvement over Mr. David in Bermuda shorts), and the movie is nothing more than a stand-up comedy routine that suspiciously resembles a Rodney Dangerfield act. Boris’ ultimate, tasteless talisman to live by: “A black man got into the White House; he still can’t get a cab in New York.” Boris is so cynical and obnoxious that he makes Ebenezer Scrooge sound like Tiny Tim.

Larry David is one of the puzzlements of contemporary show business.

Enter a homeless Lolita from Mississippi named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), who talks him into letting her sleep on his couch. Boris is just full of cheer (“Thin nonsmokers die, too”), but this little Daisy Mae from Dogpatch feeds him crawfish and greasy ribs, endures his panic attacks and marries him. Suddenly, inexplicably, he starts enjoying life. How I wish I had started enjoying the movie. No such luck. It’s as charmless as Boris, and never produces a genuinely unlined Botoxed brow until fate knocks on the door in the form of her drawling, neurotic mother (Patricia Clarkson). When she wants some fun, Boris suggests a visit to the Holocaust Museum. In the contrived tangle of events that lead to a preposterous finale, Boris jumps out of the window and lands on top of a psychic (Jessica Hecht), who falls for him while he’s visiting her in the hospital. Daisy Mae falls for a neat, clean-cut preppie with a real I.Q. (Henry Cavill), and her bullish father (Ed Begley Jr.) from a deer-hunting Red State falls for a … man!

The point of Whatever Works is that the universe is made up of nothing more than meaningless blind chance, and no matter how ridiculous everything gets, there are some meaningless blind chances that could only happen in New York. Larry David is one of the puzzlements of contemporary show business. He’s ugly, bald and as funny as Alzheimer’s; his baffling popularity on TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is bad enough, but on the big screen, he leaves me cold as a frost-free ice machine. But what do I know? I hated Seinfeld, too. Nobody plays Woody Allen better than Woody himself. Why hire a sad, boring substitute with one expression and pasty knees? Whatever Works is a dubious idea at best, but when nothing works, it’s time to throw out the script and move on to omething that does. Many things go awry here, and some of them could have been fixed, but fixing a Woody Allen movie would be like trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube after it’s already been squeezed.

rreed@observer.com