Posted: 06/23/2009


Whatever Works


by Jef Burnham

Now playing in limited release.

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Even though Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, Whatever Works, was originally penned in the 1970s, when Allen was on a comic high, it is really no better or worse than you would expect from Allen, given his recent efforts. But Allen triumphs here in his character of Boris Yellnikoff and the casting of Larry David in the role.

In a role that, some years ago, Allen would have filled himself, Larry David’s awkward mannerisms and his cynical image fit perfectly in the romanticized New York of Allen’s creation. Boris, a former quantum physicist turned children’s chess instructor, hates everything, especially children, and is not afraid to vocalize his disdain. His insults are hilarious at first, but the humor fades, which appears to be a fault in Allen’s writing. However, Allen’s hammering in of Boris’ eccentricities coupled with David’s adept interpretation of the material provide Boris with surprising depth later in the film.

Boris asserts that he can talk to the audience because of his brilliant mind. Whereas this is only mentioned in passing, Allen missed an opportunity to explore, if only momentarily, the idea that his character’s extensive understanding of quantum physics allows him to see the audience on the other side of the screen as we see him. It would have been interesting to have seen Allen break new ground by opening his work into the world of science. As it is, this aspect of Boris’ character is only hinted at, leaving Allen to retread his predictable “older man with a younger woman” scenario.

Though some jokes fall flat, especially the constant stereotyping of Mississippians, the film is generally funny so long as Boris is involved. There is, however, a long stretch of the story that follows Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Melodie St. Ann Celestine, and her Southern yokel family, which is tragically unfunny.

Despite its faults, Whatever Works showcases Allen’s continuing abilities to write and cast complex, comic characters. Following the failure of Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, it is promising that he return to his roots, and comforting to know that the man has some romanticism in him yet.

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of

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