Stop me if youve heard this one before

See, theres this older, balding Jewish guy with glasses, kind of a nebbish. Hes obsessed with death, hates people and spends most days walking around his beloved New York City suffering all sorts of panic attacks while constantly obsessing about the intellectual degeneration of the human race and the meaninglessness of our existence on this doomed, spinning rock.

By all standards physically unattractive, he still manages to spew so many brilliant one-liners that he scores the carnal affections of a hot, young up-and-coming actress who happens to be a fraction of his age.

Have you figured out that were in a Woody Allen movie yet?

Whatever Works , which is, by my count, Allens 39th stint behind the camera as a feature writer-director, has nothing new to offer. After a long, barely fruitful stint making movies in Europe for most of this decadea lot of time attempting to write lines that Scarlett Johansson might say without sounding like in idiot, and usually failingAllen has at long last returned to Manhattan, misanthropy and neurosis, and also to that weird fixation in which younger women cant help but find him irresistible. I might be in the minority, but I call it a comeback.

Or, maybe not. Whatever Works turns out to be an ancient script Allen wrote back in the 1970s for Zero Mostel, recently dusted-off from his bottom desk drawer under threat of an actors strike and various preproduction woes. Its stagey, half-baked and overly reliant on lazy caricatures and cheap zingers. Its also really fucking funny.

Curb Your Enthusiasm genius Larry David stars as Boris Yelnikoff, once a Nobel Prize-contending physicist who now spends his days teaching chess to grade-school children and berating them for their intellectual inferiority. Hes a sputtering volcano of invective, a man with an expansive worldview, surrounded by cretins. Broke and limping from a botched suicide attempt, hes a legend in his own mind.

Much has been made in recent years of the Woody Stand In, where actors like Kenneth Branagh and John Cusack go down in flames trying to ape their auteurs weird, particular mannerisms. David, frankly, cant be bothered. Hes not much of an actor at all, really, but theres still something thrilling about the way his human sandpaper delivery gives a full, deep voice to Allens reckless misanthropy.

Boris is the only person on-screen who realizes hes in a movie, and thus when hes finally done insulting his fellow characters, hell periodically turn to the camera and hector the audience for being lazy and complacent. Woody Allens on-screen persona was always passive-aggressive, but channeled through Larry David, its just pure aggression.

And yet somehow Whatever Works feels weirdly cute and defanged, especially compared to splenetic Woody flicks like Husbands and Wives or Deconstructing Harry . Southern belle Bible-banger Evan Rachel Wood shows up on Boris doorstep as a confused teenage runaway, and despite the unfortunate theatrical thickness of her accent, shes actually not half bad, for a change.

Her parents follow (though they missed the weddingyeah, this really is a Woody Allen film) and their red-state ignorance blossoms into belated self-actualization thanks to Allens bohemian, fantasy Manhattan. (God bless him, this guy still sees New York as a romantic destination for self-discovery instead of a gargantuan shopping mall.) People finally grow into who they were always meant to be, and Boris Yelnkioff just sits on the sidelines, shrugging and reminding us that were all going to die, eventually.

Alls well that ends well, but only in the most haranguing, pessimistic way imaginable. (David is given a couple of one-liners about herpes and abortion clinics that are worthy of Allens pantheon.) But his fourth-wall-breaking monologues still lingertheres a sad old mans wisdom when Boris is urging folks to seek out whatever temporary measure of grace you can find in this chamber of horrors.

He might be onto something.

Grade: B-

Other young women deeply interested in much older men in Allens films: Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson, Mira Sorvino, Elisabeth Shue, Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, Helen Hunt, Elizabeth Berkley ...

Age difference between Allen and his wife/stepdaughter: 35 years.


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