Woody Allen Talks Groucho, Misanthropes, and Whatever Works

All films make more sense in the context of those that came before them, but the old adage is especially true of Woody Allen movies. That’s not to entertain the lazy criticism that his projects are either in form or out (late career works like Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown are some of his strongest). It’s simply to say that Whatever Works, the newest export from the Woody Allen Factory System, offers deeply satisfying entertainment when taken in the context of the motifs, themes, and jokes that Allen has been playing with since day one.  The flip side? On its own, it would be a disaster.

The typically press-shy Allen sat down with a gang of journalists last week to discuss his cinematic return to New York. He appeared alongside the film’s stars, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, and Larry David, the one man on earth whose neurotic charm equals the maestro of hypochondria’s absurdist humor.We were hanging on their every word.

On the idea of David being an Alvy Singer stand-in, Woody says, “this is not a part that I could have played, even if I was younger… Larry is able to do this sardonic, sarcastic, vitriolic humor, and get way with it, because there’s something obviously built into him that audiences like. You know, Groucho Marx had this. They were never offended by Groucho, they were offended if he didn’t insult them. If I was to do that, I wouldn’t be as graceful at it.”

The character’s grace, or lack of it, is embodied by Boris Yellnikoff, one of Woody’s grumpiest protagonists to date. Boris is a world-class physicist who, after a failed suicide attempt a la Hannah and Her Sisters, has thrown away the wife, the apartment, and the career and moved downtown. From a crumbling loft space on the Lower East Side, he  wades into the dark waters of his personal philosophy: life is pointless, horrible, and over all too quickly.

It’s a familiar voice in the Woody-verse, yet Boris is a character with a much more negative worldview than previous Allen incarnations, even if his creator doesn’t quite see his character’s perspective as unnecessarily bleak: “I never think of it as misanthropic, even though I know that sounds funny because that is the source of the humor, but it seemed to me that it’s a realistic appraisal of life… the real world is as horrible, or actually much more horrible, than the world that Boris envisions. The movie is almost mild compared to the ugly brutality that is just a part of your morning corn-flakes.”

Boris’ bleakness provides the perfect contrast to Evan Rachel Wood’s appropriately over-the-top hinterland hick, Melody, who he discovers sleeping in the back alley outside his building. Despite his theories on quantum mechanics clash with her feeling on shoes, they become romantically entangled. Soon her rural patois is peppered with thoughts on classical music and art. That’s when her mother shows up: Patricia Clarkson’s Marietta is a Bible-thumping, George W. Bush-worshiping Southern bell who, like her daughter, is soon transformed by downtown New York’s bohemian mysticism.

What follows is reminiscent of Vicky Christina Barcelona’s motif that art and sexual liberation are bi-products of geography, and it also provides an opportunity for the two actresses to flex their comic sensibilities; something new for Wood: “I have a whole new respect for comedians.” she says. “I knew it was going to be difficult and a challenge, but it was like running a marathon every day. And I’m glad he had the faith in me to offer me the part without seeing an audition.”

And as for Larry David? Like with Woody Allen’s many alter-egos, it’s hard for audiences to separate the real-world Larry from his character on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Whatever Works makes it even harder. Still, when asked if he does anything to alleviate panic in real life as Boris does in the film by watching classic Fred Astaire movies, Larry responds, “I generally stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. I know there’s no getting out of it even if I turn on a ballgame, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. I would still hear that sick psychotic voice going crazy in my head, and there’s nothing I could do.” A comment that would sound just as natural coming out of either men, as it would their fictional constructs.