Whatever Works (2009)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-1 ; L-3 ; S/N-5. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

Meoldy and Boris, a very mis-matched pair!

2009 Sony Pictures Classics

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,

seeing that I must leave it to those who come after

me —and who knows whether they will be wise or

foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled

and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning

all the toil of my labors under the sun, because some-

times one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge

and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who

did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:18-26

It is great to report that Woody Allen has found his “groove” again, after such a long string of so-so films (with one or two exceptions) since the golden years of Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

He sets this tale back in his beloved Manhattan and again stays behind the camera, with actor Larry David playing the usual Allen neurotic. However David’s Boris Yellnikoff, a retired Columbia professor who tells everyone that he had been close to winning a Nobel Prize for Quantum Mechanics, is so misanthropic and convinced that the universe is pointless that he makes the protagonists of previous Allen films seem like Polly Annas! Compared to Boris Allen’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors is a raving believer in a divinely watched over moral universe. Allen makes frequent use of the protagonist breaking through “the fourth wall” and addressing the audience, one of Boris’s first revelations being, “This is not the feel-good movie of the year.”

It certainly is not, at least for the first three-quarters of the way, after which we see that Boris is a bit sweeter or softer inside than he likes to admit. Much of the humor comes into play when the innocent Melody St. Ann Augustine (Evan Rachel Wood), a naïf from New Orleans via Mississippi, moves in with him (much against his loud objections), takes his metaphorical criticisms of the world and of herself literally, and then begins to mouth his nihilistic philosophy, giving up the evangelical religion of her family. Despite their age and temperament differences Boris moves from disdainful critic to put-upon host to reluctant mentor to fatherly protector to rejuvenated husband.

When her narrow-minded religious mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up looking for her, she is shocked at both melody’s marriage to a man 40 years older than she and at her daughter’s straying from their faith. However, it is not very long before Mom sheds religion and inhibitions after she is “discovered” —her snapshots are declared not jut to be simple family pictures, but the work of a “genius.” To add to the zany merriment Melody’s Dad John (Ed Begley, Jr.) shows up, sorry that he parted from his wife, but then a bizarre twist discovers that his evangelical Christian homophobia was a cover up for his own confusion about his sexual orientation.

This is one complicated story, and definitely not one for the average church group to watch and discuss. Nonetheless. It is a funny diversion well worth your time, even if you do not approve of all that the characters say and do. Imagine that the writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (Vanity of vanities…!” ) were to make a film: it might look something like this work.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Compare what Boris rants on about with what the author of Ecclesiastes says about life. Do you find anything positive in Boris’s nihilistic philosophy?

2. Those who have seen such Allen films as Crimes and Misdemeanors compare the protagonist’s take on God and the world. Also, what does the more recent Matchpoint say about the randomness of the universe?

3. How is the evangelical religion of Melody and her family an easy target for Allen’s kind of satire? Note that this is the easy target also that Bill Maher takes on in Religulois.

4. How does the ending show that Boris is a long way from that of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Indeed, is the ending a bit too pat or tied together for you?