Woody Allen's first New York movie after five years abroad, Whatever Works is his first in even longer to center on the Woody Allen character—an urban neurotic, here named Boris Yellnikoff and brashly played by Larry David. Toughened and (relatively) rejuvenated by David's aggressive performance, the Allen surrogate is introduced treating his friends to a lecture on the "God racket." Nothing especially new—Allen wrote this script 30 years ago and intended it for no less a force of nature than Zero Mostel. What gives the material weight is the curmudgeon's derisive half-smile. Nastier than David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boris is a cousin to insult comedian Don Rickles—a smug, self-absorbed, argumentative nudnik with unshakeable faith in his listeners' stupidity and his own "huge worldview." Whatever Works shifts into gear when Boris finds a teenage runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) camped out in front of his anachronistically shabby downtown digs, and grudgingly takes her in. Of course, Melodie is also a type. She's a cheerful, optimistic, winsome Mississippi belle. They "date" (he takes her to Grant's Tomb and Yonah Schimmel's knishery), and, living out the Woodman's fondest fantasy, they marry. Melodie's parents—white-bread Jesus-praising "aborigines," as their son-in-law characterizes them—arrive in New York, and the movie dons its jammies and goes to sleep. To drown Boris' bitterness in a vat of Manischewitz is the aesthetic equivalent of depraved indifference. Whatever Works illustrates, even as it names, Allen's artistic limitations.
Clarkson is considerably less sour than her surroundings.
Opens at Seven Gables and other theaters, Fri., July 3. Rated PG-13. 92 minutes.