The Woody Blues

28 06 2010
Larry David, Woody Allen

Prettay, prettay bad... 'Whatever Works'

There was a time when, like many other dedicated cinema-goers I suppose, I considered myself to be a fan of Woody Allen’s work. Not so much the ‘early, funny’ films of the Seventies – although Annie Hall and Sleeper and Play It Again Sam certainly have their place – but more the fully-fledged, gloomier Allen of the Eighties; the Allen of Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters and Broadway Danny Rose. Even when sailing dangerously close to self-parody (with the Bergman-esque Another Woman), or to rose-tinted nostalgia (Radio Days), Woody was always interesting, and you always had the sense that here was an artist pushing against the boundaries set for him by others, whether as a comedian, a writer or an increasingly implausible romantic lead.

Well, sad to report, it seems that Woody gave up pushing a long time ago now. For the best part of the last two decades, the director has struggled along, producing films at a phenomenal rate (around one per year) but with increasingly fluctuating returns, both artistic and commercial.

That 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona was seen by many as a triumphant return-to-form is an indication in itself of just how low Allen’s stock had fallen. In the wake of such poorly-reviewed and little-seen work as Small Time Crooks (2000), Hollywood Ending (2002) and Anything Else (2003), even his long-term financiers pulled the plug, and Allen was left to find new ways to pursue his doggedly single-minded career as a writer-director.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona was, it has to be said, just about OK; a frothy, entertaining and occasionally funny film about marriage, infidelity and female solidarity. Some of the dialogue was a bit clunky, it’s true, and its ‘Catalan’ backdrop bore about much relation to the real Barcelona as Sex and the City’s New York does to the real Big Apple. But it hung together reasonably well, it made money, and those of us who’d long hoped for a proper return-to-form from the Woodster could at least breathe a sigh of relief and think ‘well, at least it wasn’t terrible’.

His latest film, though, is terrible. Whatever Works, released in UK cinemas last week, stars Larry David in the role that, until recently, Allen would have taken for himself, as a pessimistic and neurotic New York physicist whose haughty contempt for his fellow human beings is (it says on the tin) challenged by an encounter with a teenage runaway from the Deep South (Evan Rachel Wood). Any hopes of a genuine comic spark between Allen and David are soon extinguished by the former’s lumpen plotting, and by some truly exasperating, unfunny and jaw-droppingly bad dialogue.

Woodier than thou? Larry David in 'Whatever Works'

Once again we’re asked to take seriously the idea that a spontaneous attraction would develop between a balding man in later middle-age and a young girl barely old enough to vote. Once again we’re forced to endure characters who either speak with Allen’s voice or in a bizarre, clunky way that seems to betray a writer with little grasp of the world outside his apartment (when did you last hear anyone, anywhere say: “I’ll treasure the compliment”?). Once again, any character who doesn’t fit into Allen’s worldview – any character apart from the main ‘Woody Allen’ character, in fact – is reduced to a gross, pantomime caricature, and dismissed as an idiot, or worse.

Over ninety minutes, for example, Wood’s character barely progresses from her ‘dumb bimbo’ beginnings, her only moments of intelligence or clarity coming thanks to her contact with the Svengali-like Allen/David character. When her Bible-bashing parents show up, they are so thinly and one-dimensionally characterised that they’d barely pass muster in a school play. Allen’s starting point is the essential correctness of his pessimistic humanist-liberal position, and he’s unwilling even to consider why anybody else might think differently, let alone to explore different points-of-view with real flesh-and-blood characters.

It’s become commonplace in recent years to discuss Allen’s work in terms of an interminable decline and to hope, increasingly forlornly, for that elusive ‘return-to-form’ that I mentioned earlier. But, for this viewer at least, the shockingly poor quality of most the director’s recent output also raises some awkward questions about the earlier work that was once so admired. After all, what ‘form’ are we talking about here? Haven’t the faults that are so visible today always been there to some extent?

Whatever Works, Woody Allen, Larry David

Woody directing, yesterday

Go back even to Allen’s best stuff – Hannah and Her Sisters, say – and isn’t it possible to detect at least the beginnings of that tone-deaf approach to dialogue that was to wreak so much havoc in, say, Match Point? As a Brit, did I just notice it more in Match Point than I do in the New York films? Haven’t characters in Allen films always sounded like they’re reading his prose from an autocue?

And then there’s Manhattan – a beautifully-photographed film. But take the photography away and what are you left with? A slightly-better version of Whatever Works, maybe, with Allen’s huge ego again at the centre of a story that has essentially been constructed to provide a ludicrous (and expensive) validation of its director’s fondness for younger women.

Maybe I’m being harsh here. But as Allen ages and calcifies it’s getting increasingly difficult to let him off the hook. Like a grumpy old man he’s retreated from the world, and seemingly from other people too. Convinced that he’s in the right, and that everyone else is either stupid or misguided, he seems happy to trot out storylines and characters based on little more than his own prejudices, like some kind of highly-literate saloon-bar bore.

In Woody Allen’s decline then, there are surely lessons for other ageing film-makers out there. Not so much that they should ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – Allen has proved himself more than capable on that front – but more that they should rage, rage against complacency, against any comfortable, fixed view of the world, and against the idea that they can ever or will ever have all of the answers.

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2 responses

7 07 2010
Paul Baxter

Ey up,

Just got round to seeing this and it stuck me too how insular the film was. There seems to be no connection with the contemporary world – Even the modern art a character produces seems retro – I mean, who does collages anymore?

Also, a pet peev: I HATED that “English” character (who said “I’ll treasure the compliment” mentioned above) whose name was RANDY LEE JAMES!?!? I wasn’t sure if it was a joke I wasn’t getting.

At what point does auteurism just become schtick?

7 07 2010
kieronclark

You’re not wrong Mr. B.! I was also somewhat annoyed by the whole smug, New York-centric tone of the film, which seemed to suggest that all a Bible-bashing soccer Mom from the South needs to sort her out is the chance to develop her photography skills in Manhattan. OK, so it’s supposed to be a comedy, but even the broadest kind of satire only really works if you try to understand your enemy a little bit first.

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