Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" was originally titled "Anhedonia" – the inability to feel pleasure – and that title could easily label most of his other movies, none more so than his latest, "Whatever Works." While it would not be entirely correct to say that the film's lead character, Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), gets no pleasure from life – he enjoys, for example, insulting people – it's close enough.
The law of diminishing returns is at work in "Whatever Works," which is like a compendium of a half-dozen earlier and better Allen movies. Since some of those movies, such as "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," were very good, this is not altogether a bad thing. Still, about halfway through the intermittently amusing "Whatever Works," I began thinking, as I often do at middling Woody Allen movies, that he'd be a better film director if he made fewer movies. His one-a-year clip is admirable but also obsessional. When he doesn't have anything particularly new to say, he says it anyway. How many times can he put us through the same old misanthropic paces?
Boris is the generic Woody Allen stand-in. A former physics professor at Columbia whose high-end Upper West Side marriage crashed and burned, he now lives in a crummy downtown apartment and makes money teaching little kids how to play chess. (More accurately, true to his surname, he yells at his pupils for being stupid.) Boris once came close to winning a Nobel Prize, as he never lets anyone forget, and spins out his days and nights in perpetual panic attack mode. He also frequently breaks theatrical convention and speaks – that is to say, whines and grouses – directly to us. This dramatic device, used in other Allen movies, has its mite of justification here: Boris believes he can see what others can't.
His life changes when he reluctantly houses a homeless runaway, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), who is so dumb she doesn't usually even comprehend when he is insulting her. Melodie, with her deep Southern drawl and cheerleader sunniness, plays the Chaplinesque waif to Boris's Scrooge. With squirmy predictability, she falls in love with Boris. Let it never be said that Woody Allen is an ageist.
Best known as the cocreator of "Seinfeld" and the creator-star of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," David is a funny guy with a very limited acting range. The pairing of Woody Allen and Larry David may seem like a perfect commingling of Jewish urban neurotics but it's perhaps too perfect. David doesn't really add anything new to the mix. I suppose it's better seeing David in the Woody Allen part rather than, say, Kenneth Branagh (in "Celebrity"), to cite the most egregious example. But there isn't enough distance between these two men's comic personas. Allen has stated that he originally wrote a draft of this film years ago as a vehicle for Zero Mostel. Now that might have been a wingding.
What makes "Whatever Works" work, however intermittently, is the graciousness and comic generosity of its supporting players. Wood manages the difficult art of making a stupid person seem angelic. As Melodie's mother, Patricia Clarkson is great fun. She begins the film as a Southern matriarch and ends up a real swinger, and it all makes perfect sense. This is Allen's point: Gay or straight, uptown or downtown, love is where you find it. Whatever works.
There's an element of special pleading in this message, not to mention a heavy dollop of sentimentality. Just when we thought Allen's anhedonia was bone-deep, he turns into Mr. Softy. But I suppose that, in the "indifferent" universe we keep hearing about in Allen's movies, a ray of sunshine is not such a bad thing after all. (Rated PG-13 for sexual situations, including dialogue, brief nude images, and thematic material.)