Larry David squeezes into Woody Allen's rumpled, neurotic little shoes for Whatever Works, Allen's first Manhattan-based film since Melinda and Melinda. David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a grouchy, mildly OCD, tattered genius who was once—he repeats and repeats and repeats—up for a Nobel Prize in physics. Now he spends his time condescending to people ("inchworms," "imbeciles," "the family-values morons and the gun morons"), teaching angry chess to children in the park, and failing to pull off fourth-wall- shattering asides to the audience. But Boris's comfy intellectual cocoon splits wide open when he discovers Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, aggressively nubile) on his doorstep, a pretty young thing fresh off the Southern-naiveté truck. He lets her inside, is reluctantly charmed, marries her, and finds something close to contentment. For a while. You know.
Allen, obviously, maintains his old talent for acidic quips, and David is unparalleled in delivering them. Boris calls Melody "a character out of Faulkner, not unlike Benjy." When she says, "Most colleges just turn out mindless zombie morons," parroting one of Boris's standard lines, he lobs back, "You could benefit from some classes." And he's passable with ye olde Allen neuroses: When someone accuses him of not having an ulcer, he responds, "I said they can't FIND an ulcer—not that I don't have one." Wood is a beautiful creature, but hard to like: She always seems to be fighting an inherent coldness.
Whatever Works is a semientertaining but weirdly flat fable. Allen wrote the script in the early '70s, with Zero Mostel in mind as Boris—and though he's supposedly updated it to reflect our current issues and obsessions ("A black man was elected president; he still can't get a cab in New York"), Whatever Works is inescapably dated. Corny, in fact. Melody's hayseed parents (Ed Begley Jr. and the always-sublime Patricia Clarkson) show up looking for her and wind up being transformed—they meet gay people! And ARTISTS!—by life in the big city. There's no subtlety, no striation, no blending of irony and sincerity: Whatever Works is just unselfconscious cynicism trading off with wholesale sentimentality. It doesn't quite work.