Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Movies: Whatever Works

I sit down to new Woody Allen films with some trepidation. His name is no longer associated with embarrassment by the critics, who seem to think that he was redeemed by Scarlett Johansson, but this is a spurious claim—the stilted Matchpoint was insufferable, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a flatulent, cliche-ridden puff piece that likely germinated during a wank. But real fans die hard, so I went. And it was. . . good.

Okay. It was incredibly lazy. After making approximately one movie per year for the past forty years, Allen assumes that we all know that he knows how to make a movie. But other movie-making geniuses, Scorsese for example, don't throw craft out the window just because they're a few years past their 70th birthday and they're tired.*

Basically, Whatever Works is a brilliant screenplay—one of his best in years, probably the best since Deconstructing Harry. And Larry David is the best stand-in for Allen in years (though Kenneth Branagh made a good try in Celebrity)—perhaps even better than Allen himself, since he brings an additional layer of his own maudlin michegas. And the decision to dump can't-act-her-way-out-of-a-paper-bag Scarlett with flavor-of-the-month Evan Rachel Wood is a step in the right direction, even Wood is a bit wooden at times.

That wooden quality is the basic problem with this movie. Allen paints in broad strokes—the bodies and the sets are really only there to help us focus on the words. It would probably do better as a play. Watching this movie actually feels, for the most part, like watching a rehearsal.

Some readers might be surprised that I'm not offended by the movie's completely implausible happy ending, in which nine characters end up happily coupled (well, three couples and one threesome). But I think that careful viewers will see that this is not a happy ending at all. The story simply stops at a happy moment. Based on the Shakesperian shifts of emotion that we have just witnessed, and our trusted narrator's constant reminders that whatever happiness we find in this brutal world is fleeting, and should be grasped for as long as possible, with full knowledge that it will soon disappear, the savvy viewer knows that if we were to visit these characters again in a few months, in a year, in three years, we would find them in the depths of loneliness and confusion. That's the case for most movies with happy endings, but those other filmmakers won't acknowledge it. Allen is one of the few writers who not only understands, but accepts the human condition. And for that, he is a genius, even if he is lazy. The circumstances in which we live are hardly motivating.

*Okay, Scorsese won't be 70 for a few more years. We'll check in again when he's 74 to see if he's gotten lazy as well.

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