New York and Woody shine in his latest comic gem

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The title of Woody Allen’s new comedy, Whatever Works, almost sounds like a wish for the kind of magic touch filmmaking the writer/director once seemed to possess in abundance. This time, the magic mostly does work, with Larry David of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as a curmudgeonly, egotistical New York academic who becomes involved with an unassuming, beautiful young woman originally from the Deep South.

After too long a time away, Whatever Works returns Allen to New York and to familiar comic territory and techniques. This is his funniest film in years, although it is sure to offend some with its boldly stated viewpoints.

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Allen may have hit comic gold with David, who channels the director’s patent nebbishy character but with a more sarcastic, sardonic twist. In the opening scene, self-important Boris Yellnikoff (David) is sitting at a New York sidewalk caf é, talking about his disbelief in religion, not because of the concepts but because of what man has done to it, while his friends argue back. Suddenly, Yellnikoff begins to talk to the audience, a trick Allen used in early comedies. Usually, when characters do this, the acting behind them freezes or they remain oblivious. Not this time: his friends ask him to whom he is speaking; they peer into a camera they cannot see and generally doubt his sanity. Strangers on the street stare at him and move away.

Explanation doesn’t do this bit justice but the whole blowing up of this movie convention, and others later in the film, produce a delightfully comic effect, one of many absurdities sprinkled throughout the film.

Yellnikoff, who boasts to everyone that he is a genius and “almost won a Nobel Prize,” had an ideal wife, with whom he had everything in common, yet they divorce. He decides to commit suicide by jumping out a window, although he seems more irritated at the world than depressed, but fails to kill himself and ends up with a limp. His grouchy wisecracking makes the character more droll and likeable than you might expect.

One night, he stumbles across Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a young woman with a Southern drawl, huddled in his alley, starving. She has run away from her life as a teen-aged beauty queen with a hovering mother. He tries to drive her off with sarcasm but she does not get his jokes and takes all his witticisms as literally true. Exasperated, he gives up and brings her to his apartment.

The most absurd things unfold in this comedy, including a budding, if one-sided romance, between the young, gullible beauty and the sarcastic, self-impressed curmudgeon. That scenario might hint at Allen’s personal life, and is clearly meant to poke fun, but eventually the plot departs for new comic territory.

The real star in this comedy is New York City, which works its magic transforming Melodie from a rube into a latte-sipping, gallery hopping New Yorker, of sorts. Allen plays with the idea of the city having power over people and remaking them, turning it into a comic seduction but with hints of monster movie metaphor. Eventually, Melodie’s Southern family comes looking for the girl they lost to the evil city, only to risk falling prey to its vampire powers.

Allen takes some swipes at Southerners and the whole “red state” culture, something sure to outrage some viewers. Some of the humor is at the expense of Allen’s alter ego but much is pointed at people with puffed-up ideological divides.

In the end, this farce has some real laughs with a biting undercurrent. Clearly, Allen’s message is whatever it takes, and whatever works.

‘Whatever Works’

Rated: PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material

When: July 3

Where: Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Running time: 1:32