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Whatever Works DVD Review

Whatever Works (2009) movie poster Whatever Works

Theatrical Release: June 19, 2009 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Larry David (Boris Yellnikoff), Evan Rachel Wood (Melodie St. Ann Celestine), Patricia Clarkson (Marietta Celestine), Henry Cavill (Randy Lee James), Ed Begley, Jr. (John Celestine), Conleth Hill (Leo Brockman), Michael McKean (Boris' Friend Joe), Christopher Evan Welch (Howard Kaminsky), Jessica Hecht (Helena), Carolyn McCormick (Jessica), John Gallagher, Jr. (Perry), Samantha Bee (Chess Mother), Marcia DeBonis (Lady at Chinese Restaurant)

Buy Whatever Works from Amazon.com: DVD • Blu-ray • Instant Video

It's weird that only 11½ years separate Woody Allen and Larry David in age. Both men were born in Brooklyn, started as stand-up comedians, and became famous for writing distinctly Jewish comedies, works steeped in neuroses and observational human humor.
But whereas David is something of a modern-day celebrity for starring in his long-running HBO creation "Curb Your Enthusiasm", Allen is a legend.

With over forty years of acclaimed cinema to his name, Allen has long refrained from taking lead roles in his films. Staying out of the public eye while continuing to work diligently, the 73-year-old Allen has become an institution. He writes and directs one movie a year, attracting big name talent, receiving limited theatrical distribution, and often earning some accolades for himself and his cast members, especially the supporting actresses.

On the heels of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his highest grossing picture of the decade and an Oscar winner for Penelope Cruz, Allen brings us Whatever Works. While the film represents David's first crack at movie stardom, it is actually the third time the "Seinfeld" co-creator has appeared in a Woody Allen comedy. (David held small roles in Radio Days and Allen's contribution to New York Stories.)

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) introduces you to his life, which he warns is "not the feel-good movie of the year." Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) talks death and sex with Boris (Larry David) on the steps outside Grant's Tomb.

Here, David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a misanthropic Manhattanite who is happy to break the fourth wall and share with us some of the many reasons he's so down on mankind. Until recently, Boris was a string theory professor at Columbia University, married and with a son at Yale. A botched suicide attempt, divorce, and failed Nobel Prize for Physics campaign later, he is now living downtown and offering chess lessons to kids, a gig that gives him far more aggravation than pay.

One night, 21-year-old Mississippi runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, The Wrestler) appears outside Boris' place homeless and hungry. Reluctantly, he lets her stay with him. With the passing of a month, the domestic arrangement grows comfortable, with Melodie finding work as a dog walker, tolerating Boris' nighttime panic attacks, and even developing a crush on the embittered genius she sees him as. Melodie's drunken nihilistic reflections on a date are enough to lead her and Boris into marriage.

There is little sign of love or affection between them, but despite the vast gaps in age and personality, Boris and Melodie find couplehood contenting. Then, her mother shows up. Bible Belt Christian, pageant mother, and abandoned spouse, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) disapproves of her daughter's husband. While rallying to split the couple up, Marietta has her own unconscious photography talents discovered, thrusting her onto the city's art scene and into an accepting threesome with two of her supporters.

Melodie's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) is about to pass out at the sight of a son-in-law older than herself. English stage actor Randy Lee James (Henry Cavill) happens to run into Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) at a Manhattan flea market. And by "happens", I mean "plans."

The movie suffers as it diverts attention away from the hilariously bitter Boris and onto Southern caricatures. By the time Ed Begley Jr. shows up as Melodie's apologetic father, it feels like the first half of the movie has been forgotten and Allen would just like to nastily skewer the hypocritically devout. The tidy ending is sourly sweet and unbefitting of what began.

Still, there is much to enjoy in the teaming of Allen and David, who tap into their shared comedic sensibilities to give birth to an educated modern old grouch.
The sharp characterization is responsible for most of the film's appeal. Who won't get a kick out of Boris, as he uses his rich vocabulary to rag on the historical racism of his country and to gripe about summer camps?

The story is a little shakier. It opens as an old guy's young girl fantasy, with Evan Rachel Wood's naοf being ideal if slightly unintelligent. That angle of the story probably hits too close to Allen's personal controversies to have given him the lead role should he have had any desire to step in front of the camera again. Clearly, though, David is speaking for the filmmaker. The intergenerational pairing is more Gran Torino than Harold and Maude and it supplies Whatever Works with its best moments. It is unbelievable but amusing to watch Melodie become an acolyte to the wise, pessimistic coot in boxers and a robe.

With Larry David as its star, Whatever Works was never destined to play to the entire nation, but then none of Woody Allen's recent films have been expected to do that. Only with the two-thirds of earnings coming from overseas did the film earn back its $15 million New York budget. Domestically, its $5.3 M gross was a fairly average take for the director's 2000s output. Sony brings Whatever Works to DVD and Blu-ray on October 27th.

Buy Whatever Works on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Not Subtitled; Closed Captioned
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $27.96)
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($39.95 SRP $26.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video


On DVD, Whatever Works is seen in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Picture quality satisfied, although it is softer and grainier than one would prefer. The soundtrack is encoded as Dolby 5.1, seemingly at odds with Woody Allen's preference for one-channel audio. As far as I could tell, though, the rear channels are never used and most of the sound emanated from the center speaker. No foreign language options or subtitles of any kind are offered.


If you've caught Woody Allen's recent movies on DVD, then you already know the director is no big believer in special features. It's no surprise then that we get just two full trailers in the way of bonuses. Both play only when selected from the menus. More appreciated is Whatever Works' own trailer; the other one promotes An Education.

The animated main menu moves around a collage of still slideshows while jazzy music plays. There are no inserts in the eco-friendly keepcase.

Boris (Larry David) berates one of his chess students for not making a smart move. Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) comforts Boris (Larry David) during one of his late-night panic attacks.


Whatever Works was originally written in the 1970s as a project intended for Zero Mostel. No doubt some of its weaknesses stem from the material updated to make it current, which figures largely in the disappointing second half. The upside to it being made now is that it's a perfect showcase for Larry David and his brand of cranky comedy. The melding of character and actor makes for quality entertainment, as does the Woody Allen script that carries no air of staleness. Although the DVD lacks bells and whistles, the film is strong enough to warrant a viewing, especially for "Curb" fans and Woody devotees.

Buy Whatever Works from Amazon.com: DVD / Blu-ray / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris • Annie Hall • To Rome with Love • You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger • New York Stories
New: Cheri • Away We Go • Peanuts 1970's Collection, Vol. 1 • The Proposal
The Odd Couple (Centennial Collection) • Venus • The Foot Fist Way • Driving Lessons
The Best of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist • Bee Movie • Adventureland

The Cast of Whatever Works:
Clear History • Man of Steel • Across the Universe • Miracle • Stardust • The Tudors: The Complete First Season • The Hoax • Dan in Real Life

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Reviewed October 17, 2009.

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