"On the whole, I'm sorry to say, we're a failed species." Thus pronounceth Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a quantum physicist by trade and a raging grouch by temperament. "I'm a man with a huge worldview," this self-proclaimed genius says. "I'm surrounded by microbes." In his 60s, with a research career, an ex-wife and a failed suicide attempt on his résumé, Boris teaches chess to kids, whom he insults mercilessly. His few friends indulge his rants but think he's a little nuts, in part because he's the only one who realizes he's in a film. He stares out at the audience, whom he's not too crazy about either, and warns us, "This is not the feel-good movie of the year. So if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage."
Boris is the king of pessimists, but into each reign some life must fall. It comes in the pretty package of Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), who might be as old as 20 and who's run away from her Mississippi family to end up homeless in Manhattan. She talks her way into a stay in Boris' place, and in a trice, she has kind of a crush on him. They get married, and ...
Not again, we hear you groaning. Another Woody Allen movie that propagandizes crabby old guys attracting cute young women. This is not a comedy scenario; it's a criminal offense, right? Except that in Whatever Works, Allen has taken his usual ingredients--mismatched pairings, the collision of the bitter and the sweet, an abiding love for Dixieland jazz, classic Hollywood movies and his hometown--and somehow made his freshest film in ages. After four pictures abroad, two of which (Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) were pretty good, the 73-year-old writer-director has found new vigor and warmth in his old surroundings. Melody's perky nature rubs off on Boris and on the entire enterprise. No kidding: this is the feel-good movie of the year and a cinematic soul massage.
A lot of the fun comes from Boris' splenetic vigor: his misery is good company. He's an artist of invective--and in this year's movie gallery of mean old men, a chattier cousin of the widower in Pixar's Up. Credit Boris' vitality to David, resident curmudgeon on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Boris isn't far from roles Allen has written for himself, yet sentiments that sound whiny when Allen articulates them have a robust manliness in David's voice. Rancor is the medicine that keeps Boris alive. It makes him the ideal foil for Melody's cheerful resilience (which Wood winningly captures) and gives him a tart appeal, even when he's condemning the universe as "this cruel, dog-eat-dog, pointless black chaos" and his own film audience as "Neanderthals"--or when he observes that "while a black man got into the White House, he still can't get a cab in New York." Like Molière, Allen and David know there are few spectacles droller than a misanthrope in full fester.