Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and 'Seinfeld' fame) is a social misfit, an unapproachable man to all those he doesn't let into his safety zone. The children he teaches chess to get the brunt of his impatience, as the former professor shows no tolerance for failure. Unlucky at life and love, Boris seems destined to live out his life miserable from his own actions, until he takes Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young homeless runaway from Mississippi, into his home. While the pair may be an odd coupling in every regard, they have an obvious chemistry that leads them to depend upon each other.
When Melodie's family members seek her out one by one, they put their issues at Boris's feet, with each affecting how Melodie sees Boris. Her life is still in front of her, yet seems to be on hold while she plays housemaid to the significantly older, opinionated eccentric. Fate isn't obvious, and is ever changing, and soon all those who have been included in Boris' ever-enlarging circle change, for better or worse, and embrace who they really are.
I'll admit it, I haven't seen a single episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' so I'm not going to be drawing comparisons between the characters played by the funnyman David. I can't say "he seems like the perfect actor for a Woody Allen comedy," since I'm not familiar with his work, but that doesn't make what I found in 'Whatever Works' any less enjoyable.
I found Boris to be a wonderful Allen character, so full of spite, pickled from his own piss and vinegar, yet still human in the best and worst of ways. His demeanor towards others is amazingly ironic, and that's really the beauty of the film. He's so full of himself and his intelligence, but falls flat on his face when it comes to interpersonal relationships. He insists on doling out barbs and demeaning people in order to show his affection, the sign of a hurt and lonely man, yet Melodie seems to bring things full circle. On the surface she's a not-too-bright girl who occasionally outthinks him, giving Boris a new perspective he'd otherwise never consider due to the way he's convinced himself of his own superiority, despite the fact that her thoughts are shaped by the ideas he constantly throws at her.
I see Boris as the Woody of the film, the man most like all the roles the director has written himself into. His speech patterns, so random and wide ranging, his success with women despite being a seemingly unsuitable suitor, even his knack for deep-seeded irony. Boris' years have instilled him with an opinion on everything, no matter how warped or twisted those thoughts may be, and his life and happiness (or lack thereof) determine the path he follows.
What's brilliant is the fact that Yellnikoff includes the audience in his rants, changing the focus of his diatribes from his friends around him to the audience, who only he seems to be aware of. It's a bit contrived, but also hilarious in its self awareness, with the man so wrapped up in himself that he believes people would pay to hear his thoughts. But no matter how hard an exterior Boris puts up, his layers peel away, revealing a delicate person inside, who actually cares what those around him (and those of us in the audience) feel about him. His judgmental attitude is offset by his acceptance of everything around him, and his "whatever works" credo.
Patricia Clarkson is convincing in her role as Melodie's mother Marietta, while Ed Begly Jr. is certainly enjoyable as her father. Wood is solid in her leading role, often stealing scenes from David, who is obviously the film's tour de force. In this black comedy, it's hard to truly like the characters, especially Boris, who lets it be known that he doesn't care if we don't like him, but in their realism, the characters are very approachable to all ages. I found myself truly appreciating the Boris character for his quirks and outlooks, understanding the rich character who crafts a backstory without ever speaking it due to his vocal prejudices. While 'Whatever Works' may not be Allen's most approachable film (it's still better than the awful 'Anything Else'), it's enjoyable as a character study for those who have the patience to wait for the pay off. Much would be better in this world if we could just learn from the curmudgeon and just say "whatever works" to the things that disagree with our sensibilities, no matter how different they may be.
'Whatever Works' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p with the 1.78:1 window.
The film doesn't lend itself as a wide reaching visual affair, loaded with decrepit interiors and exteriors that match the film's bleak outlook. Colors are subdued and natural, feeling both rough and dull. Blacks are neither strong or weak, while whites are busy, with edges that are strong and realistic. Skin tones seem to run hot, but this can be tough to gauge accurately due to how red David's face gets when he provides an invigorated reading. Grain levels are strong, but not excessive, never really getting in the way of detail, which isn't on the strong side. Contrast is strong throughout, but it's worth noting there are a few very soft sequences thrown into the mix that drag the entire presentation down.
The audio for 'Whatever Works' is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that is definitely not 5.1. The rears don't register on ambiance or score bleed, laying dormant throughout the film. There is a tiny bit of bass, but it doesn't ever define any sequences, rather it provides a tiny bit of emphasis.
Some people may freak out over such a sound mix, but said people must apparently be unfamiliar with the works of Allen. He doesn't focus on sound design to tell his tales, although dialogue from character interaction is the primary aspect of his films. One cannot get blood from a turnip, they say. Oops, that's a cliche, Boris would scream at me for saying that.
Anyways, the entire film is presented through the three front channels (center, left, and right), with the tiny bass accent. Dialogue is clear throughout, with ambiance playing softly in the background, never overshadowing the focus of any sequence. In fact, the ambiance often feels a bit forced, despite being so soft. What is there to say? This is a no frills track for a no frills film from the master of no frills storytelling, and while it can be considered underwhelming to some, it's perfectly acceptable for what it is, and is commendable for its clarity.
I hope no one was expecting a wealthy package of extras, from commentaries to deleted scenes or making of featurettes. None of those will be found here, for obvious reasons.
I can see 'Whatever Works' dividing audiences with its stark look at relationships and humanity in general, but I certainly found the character study to be a very intriguing bit of dark writing from the master of the comically bizarre. While certainly not one of Allen's best, the film is still worth a watch, though it's certainly a dangerous blind buy. The audio and video for this release are less than spectacular, and there is no extras package (an Allen signature). I'd kill for a commentary from the writer, but considering he won't even watch his own films once he's finished creating them, I know it will never happen.