A warming sense of familiarity envelopes Whatever Works; Woody Allen’s first film shot in Manhattan since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda. It’s also Allen’s first film with Larry David; something of a kindred comedic spirit both in tone and intelligence – it’s a wonder they haven’t crossed paths before.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff (a retired quantum physicist and self proclaimed genius), with a beguiling mix of his and Allen’s renowned comic ticks. It’s a wonderful combination of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s provocative, cutting humour with every flourish you’d expect from the 74-year-old director. Where Boris differs to Allen’s previous protagonists is the sheer anger he exudes, though to have him directly address the camera throughout engages the character’s endearing side.

Having split with his equally intellectual wife, Boris takes in dense runaway Melodie (pitch perfect from Evan Rachel Wood) whose deep southern mouth strangely compliments David’s acerbic witterings about the inchworms and imbeciles that surround him. It’s this vast gulf in intellect that Allen exploits to great effect as the relationship blossoms.

An outstanding script helps the film truly sparkle. “She explained your theory of life being meaningless,” comments a nervous date for Melodie. “Yeah, well don’t let it spoil your evening,” Boris’s predictably replies, dryly. The dialogue remains in good hands throughout, in particular Melodie’s mother played exuberantly by Patricia Clarkson. Her battle with David’s character a constant delight and on-running jokes about catfish, Yankees and the Nobel Peace prize add an extra layer to an occasionally sloppy narrative. There are moments where the inspired dialogue falters and the flaws shine through, and while Allen can be admired for keeping mistakes and first takes in, I imagine he’s the only person who enjoys these, with the exception of David perhaps.

Boris’s mantra of sorts is encapsulated in the title – “Whatever Works” is a message for the world to seize happiness in anyway possible. And in the film’s case the audience can find joy from many sources, whether it’s David’s all too familiar character or Allen’s affectionate, amiable script. It’s a good effort from everyone. Preeety, preeety good.

By Ian Roebuck

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Originally published in issue 19 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. July 2010