Of the many Woody Allen surrogates past—some skilled, others considerably less so—Larry David, the professional curmudgeon behind Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, may be the most philosophically harmonious. Allen and David express their obsessions and neuroses differently—Allen is more nervous and retiring, while David tramples brazenly over social norms—but their misanthropy forms a heavenly chorus during the best moments of Whatever Works, an otherwise wobbly odd-couple comedy. Dusting off an ancient script intended for Zero Mostel three decades ago, Allen tweaks the material enough to supply David with bilious rants about the stupidity and meaninglessness of man and the universe, but not enough to bridge the modern world with dated, All In The Family-style comic stereotyping.
Hobbled by a limp incurred after a failed suicide attempt—jumping from his apartment window, he hit a canopy on the way down—David lives in a shabby basement apartment and spends his days teaching chess to unpromising child prodigies and bloviating about humanity’s shortcomings to anyone who will listen. But like a lot of stock codgers, David has a heart of gold, which shines through when he takes in Evan Rachel Wood, a naïve teenage runaway from deepest Mississippi. Wood proves a malleable hunk of clay for David to shape with his “wisdom,” thanks to her need for a father figure and her willingness to absorb his abuses. Eventually, the two enter into a weirdly platonic marriage—a late reference to Viagra is, mercifully, the only evidence of anything physical—but the arrival of Wood’s conservative, hyper-religious mother (Patricia Clarkson) throws a wrench in the works.
Though Clarkson acquits herself reasonably well in a terribly conceived role, her entrance interrupts David’s hilariously twisted mentorship of Wood and sends the movie careening in a far less promising direction. For a good 40 minutes or so, David all but disappears from the action, leaving the Southern hayseeds alone to undergo an unlikely transformation from Bible-thumpers to bohemians. Whenever the focus falls back on David—sometimes talking straight to the audience in an extremely effective breach of the fourth wall—Whatever Works gives effective voice to Allen’s jaundiced philosophy of life: In a world without order, justice, or any belief systems that are uncorrupted or rational, you do what makes you happy. Then you die.