Just one view: Whatever Works (2009)

I don’t know if I can truly, objectively, appreciate the work of certain people. I find it almost impossible to dislike anything by The Fall, by The Beatles and by Woody Allen but, even with that knowledge in mind, I still honestly think that this is a hugely enjoyable piece of work; one that, if made by an unknown name, would have led to a ticker-tape parade of praise. Allen makes it all look so easy. Like with people such as Prince, such as Richard Thompson, such as Lee “Scratch” Perry who are/were exceptional in more than area, they’d probably get more credit if they were only a great singer, or only a great song-writer, or only a ground-breaking producer. Allen has been a magician; a magnificent stand-up comic; a talented musician; a raconteur; an essayist and playwright; an actor; a director.

Larry David appears as the “surrogate Woody” (the script came from the mid-1970s, when it was written for Zero Mostel; it was never created for Woody or Larry David) and he does brilliantly in smoothly barking out his character’s wordy condemnations of seemingly everyone and everything. David supposedly wasn’t sure in taking the film on because his successful ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ came from improvisation around an outline structure, not from a nailed-on script like this, but he’s supremely good in this movie. Some argue that a blight of modern comedy is this notion of improvisation over something that’s been scripted and nailed down in advance.

You can watch American comedies sometimes and once you realise that there’s a preponderance of characters saying ‘what?’; or there’s too much repetition; and/or bad language then there’s a sinking feeling that they’re all often signifiers of improvisation, thrown out by performers when trying to give themselves time to think. I wondered why this idea had taken hold in comedy and someone came up with the probable reason: digital film-making; digital cameras. There’s no need to conserve film; no reason even to call ‘cut’, there’s nothing too cut; so they just go on and on until they find something they like. Which is okay but why, then, do we the viewer sometimes get the fool’s gold rather than the actual jewels?

I don’t know: maybe the director feels too close to the actors and hasn’t got the distance to decide what is and isn’t good? One of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies‘ to encourage lateral thinking is that if you’re ever blocked and struggling with something then throw out the ‘best part’. It’s often feels like the modern comedy film-maker will make sure to keep what they most like, in itself, even if it doesn’t connect and relate within the overall. Melissa McCarthy, for example, comes across like a profoundly funny and terrific comedy actor, in films like ‘The Heat’, like ‘Bridesmaids’, like ‘Ghostbusters’, like ‘Spy’ but those films are all directed and put together by Paul Feig. She also gets directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, in some much less successful films, like ‘Tammy’, like ‘The Boss’, like ‘Identity Thief’. You sometimes see a terrible film that, Smokey and the Bandit-style, ends with ‘bloopers’ over the end credits and you see how much fun they had while your own jaw was motionless: that they are saying things that make everyone there fall about, doesn’t mean that it’ll translate automatically to the audience.

Saying all that, I rather liked ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, improvised comedy et al, until about the third or fourth series (the one that included a mobile/cell phone being hidden in a woman’s vagina) when I just thought: “This is terrible!”. One could see the joins, see the straining for laughs when comedy should flow, it should be effortless and inevitable. It was hard work, just as an observer, to get to the end. Awful. Also, I started to get greatly irritated with the whole premise: if Larry’s playing a person who wrote Seinfeld then he’s also playing someone who is a multi-millionaire so why should I care about these irritating problems? Which would be nothing to someone which that much coin? Still, ‘Whatever Works’ was so great I think that I’ll give ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ another try, all the way through.

David’s character comes across Evan Rachel Wood’s character. They get hooked together somewhat and things spin off from there. In the flow of the next 88 minutes, other couples (other trebles, even) come about and interact. Not to give too much away, especially in the age of Trump, but New York will probably become more of a liberal outpost than ever and the attitude to relationships and politics within this film is so ‘left-wing New York’ to the absolute extreme. It’s great.

Also, there’s a strangely prescient sequence in what I guess is Madame Tussauds in New York. We open on a president, the Idiot Son, George W. Bush; we see Ronald “Mad Dog” (McDonald) “Ray-Gun” Reagan in the background; Bill Clinton too. The two characters with which the scene’s concerned are from the south of the country, from Mississippi, with the older one advising the other about the honour of Bill Graham and pointing to – in this room of many presidents – the waxwork of Donald Trump as someone one should admire and consider as marriage material. This is a 2009 film remember, yet this plays like a perfect anti-Republican film in 2017, and it stars the guy who played Bernie Sanders for SNL in 2016.

Evan Rachel Wood always does decent work: she’s currently in the highly-rated ‘Westworld’ but I especially love her in the mighty, insanely brave and daring ‘Across The Universe‘ and the video for Sleater-Kinney’s ‘No Cities To Love‘. Here, she never stops being the optimistic woman, someone’s who’s totally endearing and good-hearted, despite the verbal harangues of Larry David’s ‘Boris’. Wood does a fine bit of physical comedy to Beethhoven’s 5th and she ‘walks and talks’ her character to the bone: completely convincing. As with many a Woody Allen film, there’s a full cast (gratifyingly, mentioned alphabetically which, I think, only Warren Beatty also still does now) of great performers – the stage actress, Jessica Hecht (Susan Bunch in ‘Friends’) and Patricia Clarkson and even a man of steel, Henry Cavill, allowed to speak in his own accent.

I gather that this film has some good reviews (3 out of 4 from Roger Ebert) but some terrible ones too: one major paper made it one of Woody’s worst films ever, another gave it one star. I just don’t see that at all: it’s clever and it’s very funny. There might have been some resistance to the central relationship and the real-life forty year age gap, I suppose? Sometimes it almost seems to be that age-gap relationships are the last bastion of relationship bigotry, a ‘soft’ discrimination, and the same people who go in the hardest on this issue, often seem to be those who support gay marriage or trans marriage yet, when age-gap couples rear their head, it’s like they think that they’ve accrued enough good will to be allowed to spit bile. I guess that it’s on the grounds of a woman being potentially exploited by an older male but it seems to me to deny a female adult the agency to know what’s in their best interests. I don’t know. It seems to me that if one grown adult likes another grown adult enough then that’s their business and the end of any outside discussion or commentary. In the film, there’s zero physical affection shown between the main two characters, anyway.

There’s a retrospective re-writing of Allen’s oeuvre that constantly goes on, forever getting revised. First the ‘early, funny ones’, as referenced in his 1980 Stardust Memories, are deemed as the gold standard; then it’s the Annie Hall/Manhattan period; then it’s Hannah & Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo; then Husbands and Wives; then Bullets Over Broadway and on and on it goes. I’d put his recent ‘Cafe Society‘ and ‘Whatever Works’ both on the second layer within his whole body of work for cinema, slightly behind stuff like Sleeper, Love and Death, Bananas, Zelig, Deconstructing Harry and Broadway Danny Rose.

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