Whatever Works (2009)
Whatever Works is a 2009 American comedy film directed and written by Woody Allen and starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, and Henry Cavill. It was released on June 19, 2009, received mixed reviews and grossed $35 million.
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Boris Yelnikoff is a cynical chess teacher and former Columbia professor in quantum mechanics. Divorced, he avoids human contact except for his three friends and students, patronizing everyone he meets for not matching him intellectually. He spends much of the film washing his hands, all the while singing the "Happy Birthday" song—an attempt to gauge the proper length of time for the process.
Boris comes home one night to find Melody, a simpleminded 21-year-old, lying on his doorstep. He reluctantly lets her in for a meal and soon she tells him her story. She turns out to be of a distinctly Southern background, having been born to fundamentalist parents in Mississippi and ran away from them. She asks if she can stay the night, which Boris eventually allows, and she stays with him while she looks for a job. Melody develops a crush on Boris despite their age difference and their varying cultures and intelligence.
Melody finds a job as a dog walker while still living with Boris. Out on the job, she meets Perry Singleton and they arrange a date. When she comes back home, she explains to Boris that she ultimately did not like Perry because he loved everything in the world too much. Boris realizes that he loves her and they get married.
After a year passes, Melody's mother, Marietta finds Melody, explaining that she and her husband John thought Melody had been kidnapped. She goes on to tell her that John left her and sold their house after John lost money in the stock market. She meets Boris and is disappointed with him, so she tries to persuade Melody to end her marriage. The three go for lunch at a restaurant and meet Boris's friend Leo. As Marietta goes to use the restroom, Randy Lee James inquires about Melody. Marietta slyly decides to recruit Randy, who has fallen in love with Melody at first sight, to end her marriage. Later that evening, Leo, who had taken an interest in Marietta, asks her over for dinner. They spend the evening together, and discover that she is a talented photographer. Leo makes plans to contract her professionally.
Boris explains to the audience that over the next few weeks Marietta changed and started experimenting in artistic photography, exotic new habits, and having an open relationship with Leo and his business partner, Morgenstern. Marietta still hates Boris and continues to arrange for Melody to marry Randy. She takes her to an outdoor craft market and "accidentally" runs into Randy, who questions her about her marriage. Melody initially sees past Marietta's attempt and tells him that her marriage is fine. She warns her mother to stop at once, but Marietta keeps trying. Later, shopping for clothes, Melody meets Randy in another planned encounter and he gets her to admit that her relationship with Boris is not entirely satisfying. He invites her to the boat he lives on, and the two end up kissing and beginning an affair.
John arrives at Boris and Melody's home full of regret and hopes to get the family back together. They all go to Marietta's photography exhibit opening together, and he sees how his ex-wife has changed since she moved to New York. Distraught, he retreats to a bar, drinking away his misery. While there, he meets a recently divorced gay man, Howard, and admits something that he has known most his adult life: that he is also gay.
Melody tells Boris she is in love with Randy. Boris is devastated and jumps out a window again, but this time lands on Helena, breaking her arm and leg. As he visits her in the hospital, he asks her if there is anything he can do to make it up to her, and Helena says she would like to go to dinner with him.
Finally, Boris hosts a New Year's Eve party, at which everyone is seen in their new relationships: Marietta with Leo and Morgenstern, John with Howard, Melody with Randy, and finally Boris with Helena. Melody and her parents have completely shed their former Southern conservative mindsets and wholeheartedly adopted the liberal New York City way of life and values. (John tells that his former membership in the National Rifle Association had been but a sublimation of his repressed homosexuality.) They are now all the best of friends, and at midnight they kiss. Afterward Boris is revealed to be the only one who is able to communicate with the audience, and explains directly to them that one has to find all the enjoyment he can, to find "whatever works".
- Larry David as Boris
- Evan Rachel Wood as Melody
- Ed Begley Jr. as John
- Patricia Clarkson as Marietta
- Conleth Hill as Brockman
- Michael McKean as Boris' friend
- Henry Cavill as Randy
- John Gallagher Jr. as Perry
- Jessica Hecht as Helena
- Carolyn McCormick as Jessica
- Christopher Evan Welch as Howard
- Olek Krupa as Morgenstern
In addition, Adam Brooks and Lyle Kanouse portray Boris' two other unnamed friends.
On February 2, 2009, Variety reported that Sony Pictures Classics had purchased U.S. distribution rights to Whatever Works. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, on April 22, 2009. Sony gave the film a limited US release, beginning June 19, 2009. Maple Pictures released the film in Canada theatrically, and on DVD in October 2009. The film had its UK release on June 25, 2010.
The film was shot in New York City, marking Allen's return to his native city after shooting four films in Europe. David was hesitant to take the role, pointing out to Allen that his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm was improvisation, but Allen encouraged him to take the role anyway.
Partly to counter assertions that the film is autobiographical, Allen has pointed out that the script was written in the early 1970s, with Zero Mostel in mind for Boris; it was shelved after the actor's death in 1977. Thirty years later, Allen revisited the script in an attempt to create a film before a potential threat of a Screen Actors Guild strike. According to Allen, the only significant changes to the script involved updating the topical references.
- "Hello, I Must Be Going" – Groucho Marx and Cast
- "Salty Bubble" – Tom Sharpsteen and His Orlandos
- "Butterfly By" – Heinz Kiessling
- "Honeymoon Swoon" – Werner Tautz
- "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)" – Jackie Gleason
- Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven) in D Minor, Op. 125 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Wedding March – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Symphony No. 5 (Beethoven) in C Minor – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- "Desafinado" – Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd
- "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year" – Red Garland
- "Menina Flor" – Charlie Byrd
- Auld Lang Syne – Dick Hyman & His Orchestra
- "Happy Birthday To You" – Larry David
On Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 50% based on 165 reviews, with an average rating of 5.4/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Based upon a script written in the 1970s, Woody Allen's Whatever Works suffers from a lack of fresh ideas." According to another review aggretator, Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 top reviews from mainstream critics, the film has an average score of 45 out of 100, based on 30 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Reflecting the evenly split approval of the critics, Matthew Oshinsky of The Star-Ledger wrote that the film was a good example of Allen's "ability to write great roles for women" and the film is nowhere near his best work, but it has some funny lines and that "it's at least pleasant".