Whatever Works (2009)


Larry David seems like a natural fit in any Woody Allen movie.  Like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity or Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda, Larry David is the Woody Allen surrogate.  His mannerisms and disposition just shout WOODY ALLEN.  Yet Larry David also feels like Larry David.

David plays Boris, a divorced New Yorker with a Nietzschean way of looking at the world.  He’s an atheist who thinks everyone is just an earthworm and nothing really matters.  Boris doesn’t seem all that bothered by this, but that’s only because he has so carefully curated his daily life to hide the vast nothingness behind life.  On a couple of occasions we see him waking up in the middle of the night, petrified by the thought of death.  In one scene he wakes up proclaiming “the horror, the horror,” quoting Kurtz from A Heart of Darkness (on which Apocalypse Now is based).

In a flashback, Boris says to his ex-wife, “I’m the only one who sees the whole picture for what it is,” in regards to his fear of death.  Soon after this he throws himself out a window but survives.

Boris’ hyper-awareness of death consumes him.  He tells this to the camera because he’s aware of the movie audience.  Everyone else thinks he’s crazy.

So one day Boris meets Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a sweet southerner who ran away from home, eager to make it in the big city.  She’s extremely impressionable, and she takes Boris’ pessimistic worldview to mean that he’s a genius.  Soon his ideas and rants rub off on her so that she feels the same way.  When Boris realizes she agrees with him (after critiquing the dullness of a concert crowd) he marries her.  Suddenly we cut to a year later, and everything seems to be going well.

Then Melody’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up, having finally tracked down Melody.  Marietta is very religious and conservative.  It makes sense, then that she doesn’t approve of Melody’s lifestyle choices.

Having been left by her husband John (Ed Begley Jr.), Marietta is between lives.  She can’t return to the life she once had, and she doesn’t know what kind of life to lead now.

One of Boris’ friends falls in love with Marietta, and they quickly get together.  She is introduced to a more bohemian lifestyle full of art.  Her new boyfriend is joined by a second boyfriend (they live together polyamorously), and the men help Marietta cultivate her photography interest so that she can put on her own exhibit of photographs (tasteful black and white nudes).

Despite her personal growth, Marietta desperately wants Melody to leave Boris, mainly because of the age difference but also because Boris hates everything and everyone.  A young man, Randy (Henry Cavill) demonstrates an interest in Melody, and Marietta pushes them together until they finally do unite.

Around this time, Melody’s father John shows up, looking for Melody and for his wife.  His conservative, NRA-loving life is turned upside down when he realizes how much his ex-wife and daughter have changed.  In a dive bar one night, John meets a man grieving the end of his relationship with another man.  At first turned off by this man’s comfort with his own homosexuality, John realizes he himself might be gay and has just been channeling that phallic fascination into his love for guns.

Finally, having been left for a younger man, Boris throws himself out a window again.  He survives a second time, having landed on another woman.  They get together at the end of the film, and she’s much closer in age to him than Melody.  This new woman also brings to the relationship her own, independent view of the world rather than just reflecting back Boris’ own thoughts as Melody did.

The film ends with all the happy couples gathered together to take in the new year.  Each person has experienced substantial growth and become a new person.  Boris turns to the camera and describes his views on life, similar to another Boris in Love and Death (dir. by Woody Allen, 1975).

The rest of his friends and family ask him who he’s talking to, and Boris isn’t shy about saying there are people watching him (us).  No one else can see them, and Boris remarks once more “I’m the only one who sees the whole picture,” but this time he’s pretty chipper about it.

So Boris is incredibly pessimistic, but his ego is the only thing that keeps him balanced.  That pessimism about life as a whole might drive most people into the ground (he does attempt suicide twice though), but part of him seems to enjoy that he’s the only he knows who “sees the whole picture.”  He talks to the camera as if confiding in a friend about all the schmucks who surround him.  He’s better than them.

When Melody shows up, Boris slowly stops talking to the camera.  He doesn’t need the movie audience anymore because he has Melody.  Instead of telling us about the way things are, he tells her.  It works, too.  Melody learns quickly, and even Boris realizes she needs to spread her wings and fly away.  That’s a cliche, and Boris hates cliches, mostly because Melody overuses them.

Throughout the film, characters learn a lot about what they’re capable of, and they show a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances.  Yet at the end, Boris is the only one who sees it all, but he’s still down in the mud with everyone else.

A big reason why Boris is so frightened by the idea of death is because there’s no logic to life.  He doesn’t mind shooting down someone else’s idea of God because he knows God is dead.  It doesn’t matter what you or I or the movie audience thinks about God, it only matters that Boris knows there’s no God.  That’s what drives him to act the way he does.

Yet he uses rituals to keep him grounded, much like people who worship God.  Instead of praying, he sings Happy Birthday to himself twice every time he washes his hands.  Boris is just as neurotic and insane himself as he considers anyone who is devoutly religious.  The repeated references to the movie audience is in a way a reference to a God or a higher power, despite Boris’ confidence that there is no such God.

It’s another way of showing that Boris is like all of us even though he considers himself to be above it all.

“A bigger part of life is luck than you like to admit,” Boris says at one point, echoing the lessons imparted from Allen’s film Match Point (2005).  This belief in luck and a lack of logic ruling the world informs Boris’ life philosophy: Whatever works.

It’s similar to Juan Antonio’s worldview in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) or a bunch of other Woody Allen films.  It’s like the ghost of the grandfather in Everyone Says I Love You (1996) as he dances and sings about enjoying life while you can.

“Whatever works” is like “it’s like anything else” (Anything Else) or “everyday it’s something else” (Cassandra’s Dream).  It’s a way of describing how insignificant we are, how random life is and that you should just enjoy it because we’re all lucky to be here.  That same randomness that could kill us tomorrow is the only reason we’re here today.

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