'Manhattan' 2.0?

Woody Allen sticks with what works for Whatever Works

Every once in a while Woody Allen breaks new ground, uncovering a different side of the incomparably prolific filmmaker. Just as often, he doesn't. Whatever Works isn't exactly reinventing the wheel, but it's funny — in fact, it's one of the funniest and warmest of his recent films. It just goes to show that even when he's not the "new and improved" Woody Allen, he's still Woody Allen. And that's nothing to sniff at.

Allen doesn't star in Whatever Works, but he might as well. Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a crueler, more cynical version of Allen's nebbishy persona. At first his condescension and misanthropy are a bit disconcerting: is this how Woody's felt about us all along — that we're idiots and he's the only one who really gets it? But, like most Allen protagonists, Boris is a lot more relatable and less unpleasant once we get to know him. It helps that he's forced to take in simple Southern belle Melody St. Ann Celestine, a runaway who somehow falls in love with her host. No matter how bad a hypochondriac curmudgeon you are, marrying a much younger woman is bound to lift your spirits.

As with his other films, the strength of Whatever Works is in the variety of talented actors Allen has assemble. Aside from Larry doing Woody — about as close to the real thing as you can get — Evan Rachel Wood is charming as Melody. Her performance, equal parts sexual and naïve, recalls Mira Sorvino's Linda in Mighty Aphrodite (1995). And Patricia Clarkson, who stole her scenes in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), continues to wow as Melody's mother.

In the end, Allen fans will embrace the film. Allen haters — well, they're probably not about to start liking him now. There may be a formula at play here, but in the all-too-appropriate words of the movie's title, "whatever works." Frankly, it's comforting to know Allen can still put out a lighthearted comedy after recent serious detours. Hey, funny is funny. Woody is Woody.

WHATEVER WORKS opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters.

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