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Woody's back in NY groove

The title of Woody Allen's new comedy, "Whatever Works," might define what the filmmaker has been up to the last few years.

Allen churns out a movie a year like clockwork, some OK, some mediocre, none very memorable.

Sure, last year's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" drew solid audiences, won Penelope Cruz an Academy Award and was a step or two above other recent Allen flicks.

But the movie was emblematic of his output of late -- slight plots, slighter characters, and lackadaisical storytelling that recycles enough of the neuroses-fueled charm of his earlier films to keep the Woody Allen machine in business. In other words, whatever works, emphasis on the word "whatever," delivered with a shrug.

"Whatever Works" upholds that uninspired standard, Allen returning to New York City after four films in Europe and falling back on familiar themes he examined more thoughtfully decades ago (the May-December romance is somehow less believable now that it's Larry David scoring a young babe rather than Allen).

With David as Allen's ranting, curmudgeonly stand-in, "Whatever Works" manages the funniest stream of one-line zingers the filmmaker has offered in a long while.

It's a lazy story, though, told lazily, starting with the casting of David himself. With their lovably grouchy and cynical demeanors, Allen and David -- co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- certainly are kindred spirits.

Yet while Allen is not a great actor, he has the great gift of pathos, the rare ability, a la Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton, to be not only a funny little man, but also a deeply sad little man. David gets the laughs with his raving turn as misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff, a suicidal retired physicist who never met a person with whom he couldn't find extreme fault.

But smirking his way through the movie, David never quite captures the melancholy and self-loathing underlying Boris' bluster.

Allen also has David's Boris spouting long-winded monologues right into the camera. A small dose of these self-conscious ramblings might have worked, but here they turn into protracted and awkward stump speeches for the unworthiness of humanity.

David's contrived performance is matched by the contrivances of Allen's story as a circle of kooks and oddballs come into Boris' orbit despite his off-putting manner.

First comes Evan Rachel Wood as naive, big-hearted Southern runaway Melody, whom Boris rescues off the New York streets. Despite Boris' savage put-downs (and some of the insults truly are hilarious), Melody falls for her benefactor.

Next comes Melody's mother (Patricia Clarkson), then her dad (Ed Begley Jr.), religious fundamentalists who shed their conservatism and adopt wild new lives at the flip of a switch.

Allen creates stereotypes on one extreme only to turn them into stereotypes on the other extreme.

The transformations are funny, and Wood, Begley and especially Clarkson bring depth and credibility to their characters that David's Boris lacks.

But the changes they undergo are gimmicky, the stuff of cheap laughs.

Allen says he originally wrote the screenplay in the 1970s with Zero Mostel in mind to play Boris.

That almost certainly would have been a richer performance, but the discussion is academic. So whatever.


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