Sunday, July 5, 2009

Curb Your Humanism


An eerie, deafening silence (save for the occasional sigh) permeated the theater in which I saw Woody Allen's latest, the odious Whatever Works. I don't think a single of Woody's famously 'witty' lines earned so much as a smirk for any of the patrons--- rather, we were all in awe of Allen's shockingly narcissistic misanthropy. Woody Allen, who was at one time unquestionably one of America's truly great film makers, has grown out of touch with the city and its people that he once portrayed so lovingly. There was a time when he could view New York and New Yorkers from outside the isolated prism of The Five Boroughs, but his newer work reflects the inclusive, effete snobbery that he once so pointedly and piercingly ridiculed earlier in his career. Not a 'comeback' (has any director alive had more 'comebacks'?) so much as a half-hearted return to what he's told he does best, Whatever Works is the nasty B-side to Woody Allen's great love songs to New York (think Woody Allen's Gran Torino and you're halfway there).

There is arguably no film maker alive who has done more to contribute to New York's rich filmic history than Woody Allen. He has captured the city's unique, breathtaking beauty and majesty, all the while wryly observing the unique social climate that separates New York from all the world's other big cities. With that in mind, the way New York is treated in Whatever Works is a travesty--- as a nameless, nondescript metropolis. In his stronger works, New York was a character unto itself, but Woody Allen has clearly lost the passion that he once had for New York; perhaps he doesn't like what the city has become, or maybe he's more interested in his fancy-schmancy European locales. Either way, the spark simply isn't there anymore.

The fundamental problem of Whatever Works is highlighted by Allen's choice of leading-man (or stand-in), Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David. At its best, Allen's self-absorption reached poetic heights when he would play characters like Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), Isaac Davis (Manhattan), Gabe Roth (Husbands and Wives), or Harry Block (Deconstructing Harry)--- all characters self-involved to the nth degree. But Allen would inflect these characters with certain mannerisms that would endear them, because he would reveal their ultimate humanity through these quirks. It was the little touches in his performance that would expose his characters as insecure and lonely underneath the mask of vast cultural knowledge and inspired witticisms, and this element is what gave his earlier works their dramatic weight (and by 'early' I mean beyond the 80s and into the 90s). He is very rarely given his dues as an actor; but look at the raw humanity exposed in the closing moments of Manhattan, surely an homage to the end of City Lights, and in many ways the emotional equal of Chaplin's famous final closing shot. Or his transformation from narcissistic, vindictive asshole to empathetic, illuminated artist over the course of Deconstructing Harry, or the poignancy with which love and loss is reflected on over final lines of Annie Hall. I don't want to go on too terribly long a polemic in favor of Allen's performances, but the point is that even while he's presenting what seems to be the same character on the surface, he subtly, though effectively differentiates his core themes.

It is Allen himself that is the unifying feature of most of his strongest works, in the same way the presence of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd unified their films. As he's gotten older, he's used actors to stand-in for himself, though still playing variants on the same core 'Woody' character--- Jason Biggs, Will Ferrell, and now Larry David (he actually pre-emptively satirized this in Deconstructing Harry, which had Tobey Maguire, Robin Williams, Stanley Tucci and Richard Benjamin playing Woody type characters in the titular characters' short stories). On paper, Larry David sounds like the perfect outlet for Woody Allen's endearing pseudo-diatribes. On screen, however, David is frustratingly one-note and hammy (and this is coming from someone who loves Curb Your Enthusiasm), and I never felt like the David's Boris Yellnikoff was really fleshed out in any meaningful way beyond shallow broad strokes; when the movie begins he's an angry, self-involved misanthrope and when the movie ends he's a marginally less angry, though still hugely self-involved misanthrope. David's awkwardness in the role is highlighted immediately in an opening scene that I can only describe as painful--- the movie begins with Boris and a few 'friends' of his (it's hard to imagine a character so unlikable gaining and maintaining friendship, but I digress) sitting around while he expounds on the worthlessness of humanity, his superiority, and his belief in amorality and self-indulgence (whatever works!). David, in typical Woody Allen fashion, breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience--- only Allen uses this opportunity to insult the audience; Allen, via Boris, informs us that we've 'wasted our money' to buy 'some moron in Hollywood another swimming pool' and that if we're "one of those idiots who needs a happy ending" that we'd "better leave now". I don't have a latent desire for a happy ending, and I certainly don't think I'm an idiot, but looking back on it I wish I'd taken Allen's advice.

In interviews, Allen has been forthright about his contempt for young people ("The films that are made for young people are not wonderful films, they are not thoughtful. They are these blockbusters with special effects. The comedies are dumb, full of toilet jokes, not sophisticated at all. And these are the things the young people embrace. I do not idolize the young."), and one need only look at the disdainful portrait of young people in 2004's Melinda and Melinda for proof of this outlook. He takes this contemptuous attitude to an extreme in Whatever Works, manifested in Evan Rachel Wood's character, Melodie St. Ann Celestine; a Mississippi girl who ran away from home looking for love and excitement in the Big Apple (and this makes one wonder if Allen has ever been to the south). She winds up in an alley near Boris' apartment in the beginning of the film, asking for something to eat. After being reticent to allow her inside--- after all, she is but a submental inchworm cracker (his words)--- Boris eventually recants and gives her food, and eventually even allows her to stay with him while she gets her feet on the ground (because he "has a heart as big as the outdoors" he tells us, and it's hard to tell if he's joking or not).

Since she's one of those dreaded young people, Allen knows that she is incapable of an original thought--- and, if she stumbles upon a unique insight every once in a while, it certainly isn't a very interesting or deep one. As the movie presses on and their relationship develops, Melodie drops the bombshell that she has developed a "little crush" on Boris (Allen shirks off any morality element with respect to the May/December romance by making her the aggressor), because she has mistaken his misanthropic platitudes for wisdom and insight (those stupid kids can't even tell the difference, Allen is telling us). No, she's not interested in the male-bimbos she meets around the city of New York--- you know the ones I mean, the ones with no real drive, personality, opinions, or goals--- the ones with names like Perry Singleton (ho, ho) who drag you to band concerts with names like Anal Sphincter, and force you to hob-knob with his equally vacuous friends. I suppose that, in contrast to this, Boris' pessimistic elitism is more desirable, but then a lobotomy is preferable to both of those potentialities (thank God she meets an Englander who sweeps her off her feet, and this is the only character that Allen gives any dignity to whatsoever).

But there is never anything remotely believable about the way the relationship between Melodie and Boris develops over the course of the movie. In Manhattan, the relationship between Woody Allen's 42 year old Isaac Davis and Mariel Hemingway's 17 year old Tracy is believable because Hemingway's character is already an 'adult' in every sense of the word, while the other so-called 'adult' characters in the film are actually quite childish. Conversely, in Whatever Works, the 21 year-old Melodie might as well be 13--- she doesn't need a grown-man because she is still a child emotionally, and Boris' cranky old man schtick doesn't seem at all compatible with the sweet, bubbly nature of Melodie.

Allen's disdainful perspective toward the south is more clearly illuminated when Melodie's parents come into the picture. Allen uses these characters as a gateway towards attacking what he seems to view as the southern Christian theocracy--- all bible thumping, sexually repressed gun nuts just waiting to come to the big city so they can shed their 'traditional' skin and become the promiscuous amoral sluts they were always were on the inside. Allen isn't suggesting that one should simply be who they are--- he's saying that one way of life is qualitatively better than the other. His titular slogan and philosophy, endorsed by Larry David's Boris Yellnikoff, is one of amorality and apathy--- fuck a sheep, cheat on your wife, marry this person while you're sleeping with someone else, whatever--- there's no God, no consequences, nothing... and that's what Allen's so-called 'statement' ultimately amounts to. Like Deconstructing Harry without the deconstruction, Whatever Works embraces Boris' hateful world-view instead of transcending it.

Woody Allen will always be one of the greats, but his later work reflects his apathy toward audiences--- the overriding impression I got from Whatever Works was that the man simply doesn't care anymore. This is the time for Allen to grow as an artist--- a film maker's later years are often among their richest, but Allen is content to remain stagnant; I don't want to see him making the same movie he was making 30 years ago, I want to know how a man in his 70s, whose fear of death is legendary, feels about getting older and dying. But Allen is content to pander to his inclusive fan base and half-heartedly tell the same story has been telling most of his career, only there was a time when he told this kind of story effectively. Instead of expanding upon the themes that defined him as one of America's most idiosyncratic auteurs, Allen has indulged his worst assumptions about humanity, and Whatever Works is the unfortunate result.

23 comments:

Pat said...

Ryan -

Interesting post. I had a very different experience of "Whatever Works," starting with the fact that the audience with which I saw it laughed uproariously throughout the entire film and applauded at the end.

I liked the film more than you did overall, but I'm in total agreement with you on a couple of points. It is extremely harsh towards the younger characters, and the actors who portray them are badly directed.

And, as you also rightly point out, David is a much less likable screen presence here than Allen normally is, with the result that the insutls he hurls at Melodie are particuarly difficult to stomach.

But, unlike you, I found the transformations of Clarkson's and Begley's characters to be hilarious.

Just my thoughts, Ryan - there are plenty of reviewers out there who hated this as much as you did. For me, it was far from perfect, but still quite enjoyable.

Krauthammer said...

Allen has always been a soliplistic director, and in his best movies he recognizes it. He recognizes his extreme self-involvement and really takes on the idea of us "creating the world" to a certain extent, that we (or at least he) looks through the world through our own self-involved lenses. All of the other characters and locations are viewed through the firm viewpoint of the protagonist (usually Woody). I don't really agree with the philosophy, but he can deal with it honestly and entertainingly.

It's when he tries to get into the heads and hearts of other people, to contribute some kind of amoral moralizing to the dialog that I find him aggravating, and this seems to be firmly in that mode. I wasn't planning on seeing this because even the positive reviews made me cringe, but this great review just clinched it. When you talk about his vision of southerners or young people or rock music (Anal Sphincter? Really?) I just really don't want to be any part of it.

Kywalker said...

Ryan-

Interesting post. I did not experience "Whatever Works,". I forgot where it was that I read Woody Allen left the premiere with a rather glum look on face. You know I think he himself is frustrated with the direction his career is going. The young people he casts in his movies these days to play the set of Allen archetypes (not just the "woody" character) don't seem to be able to handle the material. Watching schmucks like that late night host, Will Ferrell (less of a schmuck) and whomever else imitate our favorite characters from Woody's filmography is plain frustrating because they obviously no not of the things they speak of.

Maybe Woody's aging and inability to play the lead roles in his movies has just gotten the old coot down on himself. I mean Larry David??! Who ever would have thought this guy could play anything other than the one night arseface he plays on his HBO program. You cannot find humor shallower than that on his program.

Adam said...

Sad to admit it, but I've never attended a Woody Allen release in theaters. I always catch them on video, apparently. The earliest I was old enough to attend an Allen release was in 2005, but for some reason I never did go see "Match Point". I know that I gotta. Is it true that it's one of his best?

Actually, I haven't seen a lot of Allen's movies. I love "Annie Hall" and "Sleeper" and "Hannah and Her Sisters", but man have I got some catching up to do! Some other stuff I still gotta see: "Interiors", "Crimes and Misdemeanors", "Bananas", "Bullets on Broadway", "Deconstructing Harry" and- can you believe it- "Manhattan".

Allen is one of those filmmakers I'm sort of a virgin in regards to, and I intend to start exploring his career any day now. The problem is that he makes one film every damn year with a rapidity similar to Godard or Soderbergh; there's just SO MANY FUCKING MOVIES. Life can't possibly be long enough to see all of them when I still have to finish seeing all of the films of Scorsese, Coppola and the other Movie Brats!

"Whatever Works" sounded exciting at first, I mean... Allen and Larry David! Sounded like a great match to me. But you've blown it all to hell, man. Geez!

Adam said...

By the way, since you have the luxury of living nearby one of the few cities that's playing it,

...is "Tetro" any good?

Anonymous said...

Hey, idiot, Woody Allen leaves EVERY premiere wearing a glum expression. It's his permanent look! Besides, I don't think he'd be too concerned about his career - at the moment he's in London preparing to shoot the first in a 3 film deal with Mediapro, the people who financed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and he'll follow that with a Paris-set pic in 2010. Oh, and he's getting bigger budgets for these projects, too. Meanwhile, his last 4 films have grossed $240 million against a cost 0f $60 million.

As I wrote, nothing to be concerned about.

Rick Olson said...

the odious Whatever Works....

Ryan, fine piece, though I do think you ought to speak up a little more, say what you mean. Readers like honesty.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, I see where you're coming from, and I had milder versions of some of the same thoughts -- but really, no one laughed? Were you in an audience of zombies, perhaps? The theater where I saw it was packed, and everyone laughed pretty much the whole time, increasing in intensity throughout, and as with Pat's audience, applauded at the end. I was laughing pretty hard myself through a lot of it, though every now and then some of David's lines would make the laughs catch in my throat.

I agree with you that the younger characters are non-entities, and that there's a lot of contempt and misogyny and misanthropy here. During much of the first half of the film, I found the caricature of Melodie as a dumb young thing pretty hard to take, made worse by the nastiness of Boris' dialogue. But the second half was so much better.

And I don't think Woody means for Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley's characters to be realistic portrayals of Southerners. They're very knowing caricatures. I think Woody's just having a lot of fun with the idea of the red state/blue state culture clash. It's obvious which side of that divide he falls on, and I for one enjoyed his indulgent celebration of this liberal NYC utopia he imagines. It's a film about some Southern stereotypes coming face to face with their own stereotypes about what NYC is like -- decadent, artsy, atheist, liberal -- and finding that they actually like what they see. It's funny as hell.

It's minor Allen, for sure, and it has some serious problems. But I enjoyed it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Pat, I guess there's really no accounting for that--- these things vary greatly. But it's also not like I saw it with a bunch of people my age, either. I was far and away the youngest person in it. A good crowd may have helped me settle into this movie a little more, as it undoubtedly gets better after it first begins, and it gets much better in its second half.

"Hate"--- it's such a strong word, isn't it? I really hesitate to put the word "hate" and "Woody Allen" anywhere near each other (unless, of course, they're uh... both in quotes), but I definitely did not care for this one. Believe me, if I felt Allen had made something worth singing the praises of I'd be the first to do it. I wanted to like Whatever Works, but I just found it too unpleasant and cynical.

As always, thanks for stopping by, Pat.

Ryan Kelly said...

Krauthammer, maybe we just feel differently about Allen. You always make art about what you know--- and what Allen knew was New York and all the things it represented. I also think his presence in his movies works in their favor because no one does that routine better than Allen himself--- and many have tried, both in film's directed by him and not. Also, as I said in the post I tend to think of Allen as something of a late 20th century equivalent of people like Lloyd, Keaton, or Chaplin--- especially in his "earlier, funny" movies.

But yes, he definitely is trying to make sweeping moral statements in Whatever Works, I feel. He definitely doesn't like New York in the 00s--- but this is a real cop-out when you consider that city may be changing, but in many ways it's still the same, and on paper there isn't anyone better to represent this than Allen.

And yes, I swear to God that Evan Rachel Wood's character meets a boy named Perry Singleton and he drags her to a heavy metal band called Anal Sphincter. I don't think I have ever submerged my head deeper into my hands then I did when that flashed across the screen. You would expect that caliber a joke from someone like Judd Apatow, not Woody Allen.

Marilyn said...

I don't hesitate to put hate and Woody Allen together - but then, I'm a woman, and he is altogether hardest on us.

Ryan Kelly said...

Kyle, I wish I felt he was frustrated with the way his career is going. Far as I can tell, he's just doing this to keep himself busy until he dies (and that's not me being harsh, he's said as much, that he "makes movies for the same reason someone in an insane asylum weaves baskets"). If he honestly doesn't like casting these, to use your words, "schmucks" as his typical cast of characters (and you are so right in pointing out that his set of archetypes isn't limited strictly to the 'Woody' character) then he shouldn't! I think we'd all rather see Allen making a movie about something he knows about instead of vehicles for Larry David, from a script he wrote almost 40 years ago that is damn-near archaic now. It just didn't resonate with me because it felt kinda fraudulent.

And I'm gonna have to go ahead and strongly, strongly disagree about Curb Your Enthusiasm--- the humor may not be 'sophisticated', but at the same time it's a very piercing take on bullshit social niceties. David's funniest situations on the show arise from his refusal to be a phony. I'm surprised that someone who likes Seinfeld could dislike Curb.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, that's not really hard to believe--- I don't blame you for not being motivated to go see Allen's newer releases, and not all of them are quite so bad as people would have you believe. But, at the same time, I (as a fan) am not particularly enticed to see his newer releases. So I hear ya.

It's okay that you have a lot of blind spots with Allen--- as you say, the man has been making a movie a year for over 30 years! It's an extensive filmography, to be sure. In addition to the one's you mentioned, may I also recommend Love and Death (part of me is tempted to say this is my favorite comedy with sound), Zelig, and Husbands and Wives. All great stuff.

And I have not seen Tetro, but I'm going today. I was planning on going Tuesday but between seeing this Saturday and Public Enemies Sunday, I need to space them out a bit so I can write about them. But when I do see it you'll be the first to know.

Ryan Kelly said...

Rick, you are so right, I'll try to write from my gut more and pull less punches. It's difficult, though, you understand.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ed, perhaps the audience was zombies--- this is New Jersey after all. I took the slightest bit of artistic license--- I think the "Is your mom... a woman?" line got a chuckle from someone in the back of the theater. But then, this could have been someone clearing their throat.

Yeah, I'd say we had some of the same core misgivings about the picture, judging by your excellent write-up of it, just I felt them more extremely. As I said earlier, I just found the cynicism oppressive, and I think no small part of it is David's hoarse-style of comedy (which I think works on his show) mixed with Allen's darker tendencies.

I agree, it got better in its second half, but I still didn't find the relationship elements believable--- and this is supposed to be what carries the movie!

Okay, I'm clearly in the minority here with respect to Clarkson and Begley's characters. If he was going for caricature I wish he'd gone more extreme with it, and I wish the portrait had been a little more endearing instead of--- nasty, which is what it came off as to me.

Ryan Kelly said...

Marilyn, Woody is definitely capable of misogynist, but I think at his best the female characters are what dignifies the male characters. But I won't argue that the man has, at times, not painted the deepest portrait of women.

Any specific instances that stand out for you or is it just a general feeling?

Pat said...

Ryan -

In retrospect, yes "hate" is probably too strong a word, but your review is definitely a negative one. And it's nowhere the first negative review - or even the most negative one - I've read. And yet some critics - like Richard Corliss at Time, to name just one - have been positively rapturous about "Whatever Works."

As noted, I fall somewhere in between.

Marilyn said...

Ryan - I don't think he sees women very clearly. His characters are so based on his relationships, it's like he wouldn't know what a woman is without one in his house to tell him. For example, seeing Mia Farrow in Alice as a burgeoning earth mother or Diane Keaton as an 80s gal, or any of his Soon-yi surrogates. It's one thing to have a muse and quite another to steal their lives for his scripts. Anyone who isn't one of Woody's paramours becomes a caricature - usually a ball buster like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives or Angelica Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors. I think he has a lot of eavesdropping scenes because he's kind of a martian when it comes to human behavior, locked in his own narcissism.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Not a 'comeback' (has any director alive had more 'comebacks'?) so much as a half-hearted return to what he's told he does best, Whatever Works is the nasty B-side to Woody Allen's great love songs to New York (think Woody Allen's Gran Torino and your halfway there).

I'm glad you mention Gran Torino as a "nasty B-side". What a great way of putting it. I have yet to Woody's newest film, and with such divisive takes on the film from around the blogoshpere I will surely try to go out and see it this week. More thoughts later. Your review is tremendous...one of the best I've read on here and I think the fine discourse in the comments section backs up my claim. Nicely done.

Adam Zanzie said...

Today, I suddenly panicked because I realized that I HAD never seen an Allen film in theaters, and I thought to myself, "What if I don't get another chance? What if Woody Allen were to die tomorrow and thus spawn another one of those jokes where Jack Nicholson is quoted as saying, 'I warned him'"? Upon thinking this, I rushed out to see "Whatever Works".

I actually had a good time. I thought it was a good movie- not one of Allen's greats, but it cheered me up after a hard week of labor. A couple of lines in the film that I liked: when Boris says, "Huh. I wondered who caught that catfish". That got a big laugh in the theater. Another one I liked that I'm sure nobody else understood: when Boris tells Evan rachel Wood's character that she's "like a William Faulkner character not unlike Benjy". As a fan of The Sound and the Fury, I was pleased to see Allen making a reference to it.

I liked the movie, but one of the best criticisms I read of it was by Lisa Schwarzbaum, who said that, because Allen had originally written the film in the 1970's specifically for Zero Mostel, the dialogue just sounded so... old. I agree. What if this film HAD been made back then, with Mostel in the lead? It probably would have suited that time better. Today, a film with dialogue like the stuff heard in "Whatever Works" sounds sort of behind the times. You're right about the opening scene; although it was sort of funny to be among those audience members being teased by Boris and his friends, that kind of breaking-the-fourth-wall technique has already been done so many times. Mike Myers and Jay Roach actually used it to the point of overkill in the Austin Powers movies. We've seen it before.

Mostel probably would have made a better Boris, too. Still, I enjoyed Larry David's performance. David himself has the same kind of crabby charisma as Allen himself does, I think. The only thing that really kept me from enjoying "Whatever Works" to its full potential was the subplot with the parents. Neither was particularly interesting. Who cares if the mom is sleeping with two men and the father is discovering his own homosexuality? It feels as though Allen is merely trying to fill the pages of his script because he has run out of ideas. But in the end, a thumbs up from me. 3 out of 4 stars.

Ryan Kelly said...

I think he has a lot of eavesdropping scenes because he's kind of a martian when it comes to human behavior, locked in his own narcissism.

Now that is a great way of putting it, Marilyn. It's just that I think that when he acknwoledges his inherent narcissism that he makes rich works--- and, at his best, he satirizes that inclusive mode of living. The worst of his work embraces that narcissism.

Ryan Kelly said...

Kevin, it's definitely worth seeing, Woody is a giant and always worth having an opinion on, and he's had such a long and storied career that everyone has a very unique perspective on him--- as this thread demonstrates.

And, again, thank you for the kind words--- you make me blush more than anyone else who comments here!

Ryan Kelly said...

Glad you rectified your Woody-In-a-Theater Virginity, Adam, now you can die a fulfilled old man. To make you feel jealous, I got to see a brand-new print of Manhattan in NYC last year--- an experience I won't soon forget. I do suggest you see that one soon, as it has many of the same elements of his latest, but Manhattan has one key element that Whatever Works lacks--- beauty and humanity. Okay, that's two. But you understand my meaning.

I'm glad you liked it--- believe me, I wish I had. What Schwarzbaum said is very true, and it's what I was getting at by saying that Woody has grown out of touch; the script does feel lifted out of 30 years ago. But then so does the script for Melinda and Melinda, and that feels particularly awkward because it focuses on young people. Allen did make some adjustments to the script, but I'd wager that any adjustments he did make didn't make the script more 'in touch' with this generation--- because I don't think he is in touch in any way.

I too would have preferred Mostel in the role--- but I'll have to disagree that Larry David and Allen have anywhere near the same style of comedy. To me, their sensibilities couldn't be more different; Allen is soft-spoken and jittery, David is hoarse and bombastic. Again, I think his style works on his show, but the way their styles of comedy clashed on screen didn't really work for me.