There’s a scene early in Whatever Works, Woody Allen’s latest film as writer/director, where the protagonist Boris (Larry David) looks directly into the camera and points out to his fellow characters: “Look! There’s an audience out there!” And I thought to myself: wow, you’re being a bit optimistic there, mate.
Whatever Works is quite a watchable film, but it’s yet another Allen tale of an aging neurotic who takes up with a much, much younger woman – in this case, Melody, a runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood. Melody’s lack of sophistication and education, and the attempts of Allen/David’s character to improve her, is played for comedy; you wonder if Soon-Yi ever watches these films and says, hang on, is that supposed to be me? Chances are that she, and you, have already seen quite a few of these films. Do you really feel that you need to see another?
Allen has never been a particularly big player in financial terms, but prior to his catastrophic break up with Mia Farrow had enough of a following to make it worthwhile bankrolling his films. After that, the (thrown out) allegations of child abuse and his relationship with his ex-partner’s adopted daughter, his portrayal of a man dating a high school girl in Manhattan seemed less like self-deprecating analysis and more like a warning.
His stock, at least in the UK, has sunk so low that the films in which he takes a lead role are guaranteed to go straight to DVD. His most successful recent films, Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, were promoted respectively as a sexy thriller and a starry romcom set in a beautiful city. In both cases, you had to squint to see his name on the poster.
Even in the films where Allen hands over the lead to another actor, his authorial voice is so strong and familiar that the surrogate is almost forced into an Allen-esque performance; such as John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway. (Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity is reportedly one of the worst offenders, though I haven’t seen that one.) Vicky Christina Barcelona successfully disguises this problem by giving the Allen role to a woman, Rebecca Hall.
Larry David’s screen persona is, at least on paper, cut from similar cloth to Allen’s. Despite – or maybe because – of this, he manages not to come over purely as Allen’s sock puppet in Whatever Works. In fact, some of the most interesting moments came when I found myself thinking, “Hmm, Woody would have delivered that line differently.”
The film’s only real problem – but it’s a big one – is overfamiliarity; it feels like all the other Woody Allen films you’ve already seen. Perhaps if he didn’t knock one out every year, despite now having to chase across Europe for funding, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as it is, a new Allen film isn’t an event, it’s just something that happens on a regular basis, and the reality is that you only really need to see about five of his films before you die. For my money, those five would be Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanours. Now, some might wish to substitute a personal favourite for one or more of those (and if you do want more, there are plenty to choose from) but the fact remains that if you’ve seen any five Allen films, you’ve pretty much seen them all… even the good ones.