Doodad Kind of Town

"Whatever Works" and "Tetro" (Or What I Saw on my Summer Stay-cation)
June 29, 2009, 10:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When it comes to Woody Allen’s films, I think I’ve finally learned to keep my expectations in check. He may not have another “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in him, but I’ll grudgingly admit that many of Allen’s recent films have their own charms, modest though those charms may be.

Even so, I couldn’t help feeling a nostalgic thrill of anticipation as the opening credits of “Whatever Works” began to roll – accompanied by the dulcet tones of Groucho Marx and Margarent Dumont singing “Hello, I Must be Going.” With Groucho on the soundtrack and Manhattan as the setting, I couldn’t help but hope that some of Woody’s former brilliance was about to resurface.

Well, “Whatever Works” isn’t brilliant. It’s sweet but a little thin, and the acting is notably uneven. But its punchlines land with delightful delicacy, and its depiction of New York City as magical place where its transplanted characters discover their truest selves is silly and seductive all at once.

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, who clues us in right at the get-go “I’m not a likable guy.” Give the man points for self-knowledge; he’s got himself perfectly pegged. Boris is an angry, cranky mess of a human being. An expert in quantum mechanics and a self-proclaimed genius (“I was almost nominated for a Nobel Prize”), Boris has given up on his marriage and academic career, opting instead to spend his days giving chess lessons or raging at the follies of mankind to the few loyal friends who will still listen. He’s hardly a match for the sweet, dim Southern runaway, Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), barely out of her teens, who shows up on his back steps looking for a meal and a handout. But, improbably, he takes her in, gives her a meal and a couch to sleep on. And – even more improbably, but as is the way in Woody Allen films – the two stumble into a romance. Soon Melodie’s proper Southern Baptist mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up at the door, Bible in hand, to bring her daughter home, but she, too, succumbs to the charms of the pagan city. By the time Melodie’s dad (Ed Begley, Jr.) shows up, everyone’s too far gone to ever make it back to the farm.

David’s performance is a curiously mixed bag. He’s deliriously funny when he needs to be, deftly underplaying the best of the gags and one-liners Allen bestows on him. And he’s surprisingly touching in the scenes where Boris’ curmudgeonly emotional armor falls away. But he doesn’t bring anything like the same level of conviction to the character’s nighttime panic attacks; those scenes call for a real sense that Boris is terrified and overwhelmed, but David seems no more rattled than a guy who’s misplaced his keys. Worse, he lacks the kind of Allenesque cuddliness that would take the edge off Boris’ worst behavior, namely a tendency to refer to virtually everyone as a “cretin,” “inchworm” or “moron.” (When he refers to Melody as a “sub-mental baton twirler,” it’s positively painful to hear.)

Wood is a sweet and soulful foil for David, but when he’s offscreen, her performance becomes unfocused and, frankly, uninteresting. A scene between her and a would-be suitor (Henry Cavill) was so boring that I temporarily “checked out” and planned a shopping list in my head until the film got back to Boris. Wood also has a disconcerting habit of constantly bobbing her head in any scene where Melodie must be especially earnest – it sent me straight up the wall after about 10 seconds.

But the ever-reliable Clarkson is a dizzy delight as the buttoned-up Southern matron who discovers her true passions – artistic and otherwise – under the spell of the city.

There’s stuff to quibble with here, if you’re so inclined. Allen makes easy fun of bible-thumping Christians but shows that he doesn’t really know much about them. (They don’t tend to ask for a big glass of bourbon immediately after they cross your threshold, as Clarkson does here.) And Boris’ “whatever works” philosophy is not much of a stretch from that of Allen’s character in “Hannah and Her Sisters” some 23 years ago. (“What if the worst is true? What if there is no God and you only go around once? Don’t you want to be part of the experience? Hell, it’s not all a drag.” is not very far removed from Boris’ exhortation to us to grab “whatever love you can get or give, whatever happiness you can provide, every temporary measure of grace…”).

But “Whatever Works” also invokes “Hannah…” in the best ways, not least in its (minor spoiler coming up) unforeseeable and blissfully redemptive happy ending.

Boris is a smart guy, but he gets one thing absolutely wrong in that opening monologue. “This isn’t the feel good movie of the year,” he warns us. “If you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage.”

Yes, a foot massage is nice. But “Whatever Works” may actually be the feel good movie of the year.

As for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro”….

… my friend, Bill, said it best. “There’s a whole lot going on in that movie.”

That’s an understatement. “Tetro” is a grand, gorgeous drama built around the gradual unearthing of dark family secrets. It is a visual stunner, managing to both subtly reference Fellini’s black-and-white master works and and overtly reference the Technicolor glories of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s best work.

The film opens as a very young man (Alden Ehrenreich), wearing what appears to be a naval uniform, steps off a night bus in a run-down Beunos Aires neighborhood and find his way through the streets, occasionally stopping to get directions from passers-by. These nighttime scenes are beautifully lit and photographed – in one, an almost unearthly light emanates into the darkness from inside a dilapidated newsstand.

The young man, Bennie, is coming to visit his older brother, Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo’s girlfriend (Maribel Verdu) happily lets him into their apartment, but his brother refuses to come out to greet him or even acknowledge him. As Bennie settles in to sleep on the couch, he tearfully reads an old letter in which his older brother promised to “come back and get (him.)”

Angelo, who now insists on being called Tetro, will gradually come around, of course, but not without dragging some old family skeletons out of their closets. Revelations pile up, with each newly unearthed family secret more painful and fantastical than the last.

Mixed in with the family drama are some amusing and nicely observed side trips to the struggling theatre group for which Angelo runs lights. There’s a surfeit of good ideas and good intentions at work here, but Coppola never finds a way to make them all coalesce. “Tetro” is a wildly uneven ride, swerving unpredictably between near-brilliance and tedium. There are times you can barely stay with it, and other times you never want it to end.

But ultimately, for all its overcooked visual granduer, “Tetro” is a decidedly anemic affair. The actors – every one of them – lack the passion and intensity that the film’s visual style seems to require. Think of Anton Wolbrook, almost over the top in Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes.” Didn’t his artfully overstated emotion as he introduced the final ballet sort of live up to the vibrancy and intensity of the film’s palette? Well, “Tetro” needs a Anton Wolbrook; unfortunately, the best it’s got is Vincent Gallo – and he reminded Bill and I of Denis Leary on a particularly cranky day far more than the tortured artist/genius he’s purported to be.

7 Comments so far
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I cannot tell you how glad I am that Ed Begley Jr. is working in movies again. I saw some footage of Whatever Works, and it was like an episode of "Curb". Larry is the SAME character. Hope you are doing great. We still need to meet up!

Comment by Parisjasmal

Jen – And I cannot tell you how glad I am that you left a comment.Whenever I write a bad review of a Woody Allen film, a dozen people show up in the first 24 hours to argue with me. But I finally give Woody a good review…and NO ONE even reads it! Sheesh!Anyway, yes we really do need to get together soon. Maybe I will give you a call…

Comment by Pat

"Well, "Whatever Works" isn't brilliant. It's sweet but a little thin, and the acting is notably uneven. But its punchlines land with delightful delicacy, and its depiction of New York City as magical place where its transplanted characters discover their truest selves is silly and seductive all at once."Well, Pat, this sums up my own position, so why compose my own summary assessment? Ha! I paticularly loved th eNew York locations, which I frequent, including the very theatre I saw the film in, the Landmark. Then of course, there is Chinatown, and that delectable Jonah Schimel's Knish store, the Cinema Village and some identifiable lower East Side locations, that I frequent every week. We are proud of the Woodman, even if (as you rightly note) his later work is rather uneven. I understand of course what you are saying there about David, but I think he was as deep as that character (alter-ego) needed to be. Ironically, I like dthis film more than VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, a position that would have most people thinking I have gone insane. You have wonderfully captured this film's pulse with a fair, if modestly enthusiastic appraisal.TETRO is flawed for sure, yet it's undeniably multi-textured, operatic (literally and figurively) and infused with some of the old Coppola vigour, and it's new find in the lead (Di Caprio lookalike) gives a fine performance. I wouldn't quite say that TETRO needed an Anton Wolbrook, but let's just say it needed anyone but Vincent Gallo! Ha! I am a huge fan of Powell/Pressburger's THE TALES OF HOFFMANN as well as the Ofeenbach opera it was made of, so this probably prejudiced me to like this film a bit more than you did Pat. But we are pretty close on it.Two superbly written and insightful pieces. Two for the price of one!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam -Wonderful to hear from you.I don't consider you insane for preferring this film to "VCB," because I felt exactly the same way. I really enjoyed myself at "Whatever Works" and I envy you for having regular access to all those wonderful NYC locations. (I have to admit, after seeing this, I went straight to Expedia to look up flight and hotel prices for NYC – I haven't been there for almost 2 years, and after seeing "Whatever Works," I'm dying to make another visit.As for "Tetro," if you know "Tales of Hoffman" (which I don't) that may enhance the film for you. My review sounds a bit more negative than I intended. It's an ambitious and fascinating film, even though slow in places.

Comment by Pat

Pat, I was avoiding your review until I'd actually seen the movie, which I did tonight. Now that I've seen it and read this, I pretty much agree with your take. It's no masterpiece, it has plenty of problems, but it's ultimately redeemed by the good stuff. Wood was pretty lousy, I thought, and worse still Woody directed some fairly hateful bile at her character. And the first half of the movie with the Wood/David romance is really contrived and uncomfortable, especially because Boris is such a jerk. But then Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley arrive and it becomes this whole other, absolutely hilarious movie about sexual awakening and the celebration of NYC liberalism and hedonism and cultural values. I love Woody's unabashed blue-state pride, even if he does display precious little actual understanding of non-NYers. It's still a warm, funny, charming movie. It's a mess, but a strangely endearing one.And then there's my favorite exchange:"What's he like?""He's got four arms and two noses."I laughed so hard at that I missed the next three or four one-liners.

Comment by Ed Howard

Hey, there. I haven't seen the film yet, and have been away from the blogs — in Margaritaville — but this is a fine review. I'm going to go see it as soon as I can.

Comment by Rick Olson

Ed -Yes, some of the things Boris says to Melodie are genuinely cruel, and I found it odd and cringe-making that Allen laid on the insults so thick. But things do indeed get lighter and breezier once Clarkson arrives. The line you quote is funny, but I remember the entire build-up to Begley's reunion with Clarkson being one big laugh after another, largely due to Larry David's reactions and one-liners – easily one of the funniest passages in the film.Rick – I will really look forward to your review when you see it.

Comment by Pat

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