In Theaters: Whatever Works

Movieline Score: 5

Woody Allen hasn't made any secret of the recycling job that is his new film Whatever Works, first written three decades ago as a starring vehicle for Zero Mostel and exhumed from his desk in a pinch when a looming SAG strike threatened Allen's brisk film-per-year output. It's an interesting admission -- perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, in fact, which Allen revived instead with Larry David as his brilliant, misanthropic surrogate and Evan Rachel Wood as his nubile Southern muse. We always knew he was kind of a dirty old man, but what's a dirty old man without an imagination? Now we know.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, an insult-slinging, Nobel-caliber physicist whom Allen introduces via epic monologue. "I'm a man with a huge world view," Boris announces, and to the extent he can see through his pitch-black narcissistic fog, he's right. His perspective costs him his marriage and exiles him to a semi-squalid loft in Manhattan's Lower East Side, outside which he discovers the runaway belle Melody (Wood) sleeping in his trash. She cajoles her way through his front door and eventually -- as the willing, fair-fleshed recipient of his broadsides -- into his rat-trap of a heart. "What if I was to tell you I was starting to develop a crush on you?" she asks. He resists all the way to the altar, where they're married before you can say "Mariel Hemingway."

Her Mississippi provenance offers Boris plenty of low-hanging insult fruit, some quite funny. But if the whole spousal-abuse dynamic plays a little too strong for you, don't worry; Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) isn't far behind, reeling in dizzy shock at her daughter's new environs. And the husband she left behind (Ed Begley Jr.) is right around the corner, too, joining an Olympics of self-discovery that Allen's New York hosts better than anywhere.

Of course, that means a regional stereotype or 12 must fall, and Allen's grasp of the South -- the land of Bible-waving, funny-accented, self-loathing, mongoloid hypocrites -- makes Sam Mendes's Away We Go look utterly humanistic in comparison. Again, this isn't really news for even the most casual Allen observers. If Penelope Cruz could win an Oscar last year for upholding Allen's hot-blooded Spanish firecracker, surely Clarkson's Marietta is next in line for her renaissance as a black-clad NYC art star lost in the throes of polyamory. They're candy-coated archetypes, showcases a mile wide and an inch deep, good work if you can get it.

But for a better idea of where Allen's mind is here, look to Begley, whose own character's rebirth is -- SPOILER ALERT -- among the most facile handlings of homosexuality this side of Cruising, regarded almost like a child who's finally achieved the breakthrough of not wetting the bed. Boris's final admonition to find happiness and love through "whatever works" actually reflects a pretty wild condescension, as though being gay in the South (or anywhere else for that matter) is tantamount to a lifestyle choice. The pursuit of dreams in Whatever Works involves a rather graceless flight from the characters' more immediate problems: Themselves.

Allen is no different, and however optimistic his closing note sounds, and you start to feel bad, and then outright angry at those who enable his creative inertia. Is the chemistry fine? Sure. Does it look great? Definitely. But when a guy this brilliant so cavalierly lives by mantra of the title -- by his own admission -- could you possibly care less? RATING: 5