A Review of Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works”

Larry David tries to convince Evan Rachel Wood that Woody Allen likes her just as much as Scarlett Johannson.
Larry David tries to convince Evan Rachel Wood that Woody Allen likes her just as much as Scarlett Johannson.

“I’m not a likable guy…”
Author: David H. Schleicher

Woody Allen’s alter ego, Boris (a bitterly good and sardonic Larry David) makes this statement to the audience rather early on in Whatever Works.  The truth is, no matter how misanthropic, sarcastic and neurotic Woody Allen is, he ultimately is a pretty likable personality…if you like that type.  Allen’s return to Manhattan after three stays in London and a wonderful stop-over in Barcelona is yet another niche film. Fans of Allen, as well as fans of Larry David’s “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (which not so ironically should be the same folks) will find plenty to laugh at here, while others will inevitability whine, “I don’t care for Woody Allen…and oh, that Larry David! Can’t stand him!”

The plot of Whatever Works  is irrelevant.  Boris is some sort of genius-level physicist trying to speed his way to death, though those metaphors are never explored as poignantly as they should be.  It all just serves as a soap-box for Allen (through David) to funnel his usual dialogues about relationships, love, luck and the meaning of life.  It’s all very broad and obvious this time around, but it’s sometimes nice to still be laughing at the same old feel-good shtick.  It should come as no surprise that Boris also tells the audience this isn’t a movie designed to make you feel good, unless you’re Allen fans, and then you’ll feel pretty swell afterward.  Leave it to Allen to infer moviegoers are inherently morons, but we’re sophisticates for watching his films.

Apparently this is a reworked screenplay from the 1970’s and the Annie Hall style monologues to the audience are evidence of that.  In the jokes department you’ll find old standards mocking the French and suggesting kids should attend “concentration camps” for the summer mixed with modern humor about the Taliban and Viagra.  There’s also one hilarious throw-away/blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to James Cameron’s The Abyss that makes you wonder if perhaps the screenplay was first reworked in the 1980’s before its final incarnation here. 

In the casting department we find Patricia Clarkson, yet again, is a delight in her curiously under-written over-written role (which is far too simply complex to explain in a traditional review) and continues to build a case for herself to be declared this generation’s “Best Supporting Actress” twenty years from now.  Evan Rachel Wood is cute-as a-button (oh, as her character might declare, what a cliché) as a Southern cutie-pie who runs away to New York City and meets up with the suicidal Boris.  Allen, as always, is luminous with his photography of the “young lady.”  And unlike the similarly dumb motor-mouthed funny-voiced Mira Sorvino character from Mighty Aphrodite, Wood’s character is actually given an arc here and proves not to be as shallow and moronic as Boris originally assessed, which indicates maybe Allen is growing just a teeny bit in his view on women…or maybe not.

Ultimately this is yet another testament to Allen’s worldview, which is summed up here as do whatever works for you to trick yourself into believing you’re happy in this miserable world.  Sure, there are times when Boris’ diatribes run a few lines too long, or when the film stops dead when he is not on screen, but for the most part, this is Allen doing what works best for him.  No other director can call himself out on all his personal pratfalls and annoying quirks yet still find a way to endear himself to the faithful who are ever patient with him and his films.  No other director can be so charmingly mean-spirited and self-deprecating yet still find a way to declare his alter ego a genius at picture’s end.  And that’s why we’ve always liked you, Woody, for better and for worse.  For what it’s worth, when it comes to Allen’s better and worse, Whatever Works falls happily in between and works just fine, thank you very much.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.


Check out some of my reviews of past Woody Allen films:

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Match Point (2005)

Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Annie Hall (1977)



  1. Yes indeed David it definitely works well enough, and Larry David was a hoot in the Allen alter-ego role. I know I am in a vast minority when I say that I liked this more than last year’s VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. This one has some excellent one-liners and it was an unassuming, breezy confections that brought him back to his home turf. I liked the shots of Chinatown, the Cinema Village and Jonah Schimel’s knish shop.

    “Ultimately this is yet another testament to Allen’s world-view, which is summed up here as do whatever works for you to trick yourself into believing you’re happy in this miserable world.”

    Precisely! Great review, I hung with every word!

    Sam, I loved the knish shop. It had me jonesing for a knish today. I also liked the shot of Webster Theater and the “Anal Sphincter” rock show Melodie went to on her first date. Lots of nice shots in this one in the old stomping grounds, and plenty of funny wordplay and one-liners. The snob in me still thinks Vicky Christina Barcelona was the better film…artier, and a refreshing change of locale from dreary London where I only think he was successful the first go-round with Match Point. –DHS

  2. I loved Vicky Christina Barcelona very much. But for me Woody Allen always delivers. Whatever Works falls under the same category.

    The “Anal Sphincter”,rock show was too funny, how some folks do not appreciate how Woody Allen has so much background in his films is beyond me. However I do think a lot of people do not notice the background scenes in his films. Which may be the reason his work does not get judged with the full knowledge of what is going on. To bad because all is scenes within a scene make for the full affect of his art.

    By the end of the film I had decided I was the only person who understood and appreciated this Woody Allen film. I was the only person laughing in a theater of about 25 people.

    I don’t mind it was a rework. I just love that Woody takes me along on his adventure with his honest characters and their imperfections making this film perfect.I know people like these in this film.

    Even though I do not think this world is as miserable I do believe one does need to live their life with the philosophy of doing “Whatever Works” so they can obtain their own happiness.

    Let’s face life goes fast and it is far to short for me. Great review !

    Debra, I am happy to say a vast majority of the crowd was laughing along with me during this film — though I must say my neighborhood and its cineplex are demographically alligned with the traditional Woody Allen crowd. I think you are definitely correct when you say that most people don’t notice the “background” stuff in films. That’s usually my bread and butter. –DHS

  3. I am a long term Woody fan and my hopes fell in the beginning of Whatever Works – I found Larry David to be “too much” but felt the film cracked wide open both in terms of timing, jokes and plot twists with the entrance of Patricia Clarkson and Woody’s brilliant writing /social commentary shined through. Ironically I just finished reading a book, The Big Picture filmmaking lessons from a life on the set by Tom Reilly who worked on eighteen Woody Allen films (apparently not this one) Anyway the book is awesome it really takes you behind the scenes of filmmaking- especially with Woody. Really fun book I couldn’t put it down.

    J.J. — I agree the film really picked up steam when Patricia Clarkson arrived on the scene. Oh, and thanks for the book recommendation–sounds like an interesting read. –DHS

  4. Whatever Works is supposed to be the lead character’s mantra. Although the title is perhaps more appropriate as Allen’s methodology concerning filmmaking than as a life philosophy. And in the end what are we left with? A happy ending that proposes that everyone can get along if we all do whatever works, which justifies Charles Manson existence, I suppose. There is a point when Boris talks to the audience and questions whether anyone is even in the theater. If he had addressed the audience as the suckers we are, members of a diminishing society, vainly hoping that Woody Allen will return to making films that deal with complex themes about the nature of life and realistic portrayals of relationships between men and women, then Allen would have made at least one insightful comment in this film. Anyone remember the days when Woody Allen made films concerning themes a bit deeper than a two word alliterated title?

    Read my full Review at http://cfilmc.wordpress.com/

    Jason, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. You make some good points, but I don’t think it’s fare to expect that much from Woody this late in his career/life. I really enjoyed the review of Away We Go, by the way, and I will be adding CFC to my blogroll. –DHS

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