The news, or at any rate the publicity, that Woody Allen had originally written Whatever Works for Zero Mostel (d. 1977) and had only lately pulled the script out of a drawer and plugged in Larry David instead, might have given rise, among a few old-liners, to hopes of a return to the “funny Woody Allen,” pre-Interiors, pre-Manhattan, pre-Stardust Memories (1978, ’79, ’80). Well, it is a return at least to New York City (in the butterscotchy tints of cinematographer Harris Savides), after a lengthy sojourn abroad, in England and in Spain. But it clearly is not a return to the New York City of Annie Hall (1977), as allusions to AIDS, Darfur, the Taliban, and so on, will attest.
Once we’re made aware that the screenplay underwent revisions, we can’t help but wonder as to the extent of these. Does the opening of the film — a group of old male friends reminiscing around a café table, leading into a flashback — prefigure the structure of Broadway Danny Rose (1984) or does it slothfully copy it? And a bigger question: does the older-man-younger-woman romance — a configuration that got Allen into no hot water in Manhattan but into boiling water later on in his personal life — indicate an early predisposition or a recent entrenchment? It matters only slightly. Either way, to have pulled this particular theme out of a drawer at this point, regardless of the amount of honing and sharpening and weaponizing, is to throw it into our faces. Take that, make of it what you will. Some people who still found Allen funny after Manhattan, needless to mention, stopped finding him funny after his real-life romance with the college-age adopted daughter of his Significant Other.
The older man in Whatever Works is diplomatically not Allen himself, but an Allen surrogate, in the role of a neurotic misanthropic hypochondriacal self-acclaimed “genius,” once considered for the Nobel Prize in physics, who peppers his speech liberally (or perhaps we should say intolerantly) with epithets like “moron,” “cretin,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” “zombie,” “mental midget,” “inchworm,” and “earthworm.” Allen has long exhibited a tendency towards intellectual snobbery, but he has never before let it so boundingly off the leash. (“Let me tell you right off,” the protagonist addresses the camera directly, “I’m not a likable guy.”) And so, notwithstanding the mask of the surrogate, that’s thrown in our faces as well.
All of this throwing-in-our-faces, while it is not apt to foster much mirth, does not really foster much provocation either. The film is unmistakably, and emasculatingly, a minor effort from Allen, a low-pressure job. The younger woman (Evan Rachel Wood), a runaway Mississippi hick with a shaky grasp of irony and sarcasm, is never a swallowable character on her own, much less a swallowable partner for the protagonist, although there’s a core of truth, of human observation and perception, in the way she begins to remold herself (albeit malapropistically) to her new mate. Her separated parents, holy-rollers who roll separately into the Big Apple and roll respectively into a ménage-à-trois feminist liberation and a homosexual awakening, are strictly hack. And the dialogue, despite a fair share or perhaps even less than fair share of amusing lines, possesses that stagy, literary, writerly, Allenesque quality that refuses for the most part to come to life.
Larry David, on his part, unlike so many Allen actors who end up sounding like Allen impersonators, proves to be a strong enough presence to escape Woody Allen if not strong enough to escape Larry David. The Larry David, that is to say, of Curb Your Enthusiasm, slight discrepancies aside. (For the record, he’s forty years older than Wood, whereas Woody’s a mere thirty-five older than his own actual spouse.) David, with his rapid gravitation to a raised voice, refreshes Allen’s writing in much the way the British accents refreshed it in Match Point or the Spanish accents refreshed it to a lesser degree in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. A new mouthpiece, a new set of pipes. And the remark above about the unmistakably minor effort deserves a caveat. The minorness of Allen’s efforts has become, besides a regular feature of them, a major part of their attraction. He is no longer out to set the world on fire. He is just out to keep the candle lit. Anyone who has journeyed this far with him will be interested to view his latest effort, however minor.
The Proposal, a more traditional romantic comedy directed by Anne Fletcher, has a premise no more ridiculous than something that might once have featured Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. The editor-in-chief at Ruick & Hunt Publishers, a transplanted Canadian ice queen slash wicked witch of the north, now threatened with deportation for an expired visa, commands her lackey to marry her, true love following along lickety-split. The rotelike working-out of the premise appears heedless of the ridiculousness and therefore increasingly ridiculous, heedless in particular of the age difference — twelve years in real life — between Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, obvious to the naked eye, the proverbial biological clock wound down to its final flagging ticks, a woman-to-man seniority not quite the strict equivalent of Larry David to Evan Rachel Wood, but still. The two stars all the same display a polished smoothness if something less than a Golden Age luster.
Chéri, a compaction of two Colette novels, is not heedless of the age difference — twenty-three years — between a brink-of-retirement Parisian courtesan and the androgynous bastard son of an already retired courtesan, the older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) hitching her wagon to the younger man (Rupert Friend), who after six years together opts to uncouple and then recouple with a woman his own age, the bastard daughter of yet a third courtesan. Indeed, so heedful of the mismatch are writer Christopher Hampton and director Stephen Frears as to give the occasional impression that the film is actually about something more than Belle Epoque clothes, décors, hairstyles, gardens, cars. The proper tone, however, is a struggle, the hardest labor coming from the arch omniscient narrator (director Frears himself), the lilting, mincing, never-letting-up music of Alexandre Desplat, and above all Michelle Pfeiffer, drawing out her vowels in an attempt to convey jadedness and sophistication and to keep pace in that regard with the predominantly British cast, short of doing a full-blown British accent.
Year One, not so much directed by Harold Ramis as permitted to happen, is an anachronism-littered buddy comedy about a hunter and a gatherer expelled from their primitive village and followed through a Biblical landscape of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Sodom but not Gomorrah: “What transpires within the confines of the walls of Sodom, stays within the confines of the walls of Sodom.” Michael Cera, who couldn’t remain a contemporary adolescent forever, preserves his delicate and diffident line-delivery even in the rough company of Jack Black. And Hank Azaria, as a fervent Abraham, gets a lot out of the word “God,” and he gets it out a lot, sounding like a blend of the televangelist, the man who hits his thumb with a hammer, and the cat with a fishbone in its throat. The now routine outtakes in the closing credits carry the usual implication of trying desperately at the last minute to make up for the dearth of laughs in the preceding ninety.