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June 12, 2009


Commentary by Don Rose

What more do you want, fans of kvetching humor? Finally, you got your big screen Dream Team. (And by your I also mean mine.) Which means that, on paper, the new Woody Allen film "Whatever Works" seems to have all the elements of a satisfying comedic-cinematic concoction.

The biggest sign of imminent hilarity is the casting of Larry David, who is arguably the funniest guy on TV right now and could be called this generation's Woody. We all know that he created the iconic ironic George character on Seinfeld, who everyone knows was heavily influenced by Woody and his various Woodyisms (at least in the early episodes of Seinfeld), so it seemed like destiny for Larry and Woody, the jocular Jewish jesters, to eventually work together.

But wait, there's more -- as in more signs of classic comedy to come: the casting of Michael McKean and Ed Begley, Jr., who of late have been regulars in the Christopher Guest film family. David, McKean and Begley (sounds like a law firm, doesn't it?) are all schooled in the skill of improvisational comedic acting, which I am hoping will add some mirth-filled sparks. When working from a work of Woody, I kinda doubt there is much improv going on, but you never know. This only adds to my anticipation for "Whatever Works," which opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 19th.

The title "Whatever Works" not only seems to be part of the underlying message of this movie, but could also apply to how comedians write and perform their humor. One cannot always explain why people laugh at something, and comics are often happily surprised by what works onstage. You take what you can, and try to remember it, and do it again. You do whatever works. Similarly, comedy directors are often surprised by what works, and are happy to grab the magic when it occurs, eager to use whatever works to get the laugh. (Remember: dying is easy; comedy is hard.)

Woody, of course, is the least likely to need comedic chance to evoke large laughs, but the vast comedic experience in much of his cast's past means Woody gave himself the greatest odds of mining gold from his latest script, so he could unearth whatever works to create a knockout comedy. And the best jester for a kvetchfest besides Woody is Larry. David seems just the comedic Ali to deliver Allen punchlines. He could be credited as reinventing the sitcom, and now he's TV comedy's most brilliant (and unlikely) star. Most fans of funny agree that David's HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has been one giant leap for mirthkind. (Yes, that was a non sequitur nod to Apollo 11, but before you banish me to the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, look at the connections: the first moon landing celebrates its 40th anniversary this July, and this is also the 40th anniversary of Woody's first film as director/star ("Take the Money and Run"), and "Whatever Works" is Allen's 40th film. What more do you want? Okay -- I predict his latest opus will gross $40 million.) Now here's a 40 word summary of "Whatever Works":

Eccentric New Yorker Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) abandons his upper class life to lead a more bohemian existence. He meets a young Southern girl and her family, and no two people seem to get along in the entanglements that follow.

The film's trailer is available on the Whatever Works website, and reveals laughs aplenty -- a very good sign. Boris is another in the great tradition of Woody Allen surrogate characters (played over the years by stars ranging from Kenneth Branagh to Will Ferrell to, now, Larry David). Boris comes right out and tells you, breaking the Fourth Wall, that this "isn't the feel-good movie of the year" and he isn't a likeable guy. Good. We like David unlikeable. We are used to him playing the ornery complainer who still somehow grows on us, like an amiable barnacle -- and this film thankfully lets David be David, with the added bonus of stellar Allen lines.

However, I have a feeling the ending may reveal more feeling than Boris seems to have on the surface. While this may not be the feel-good movie of the year, it still may be a feel-good movie; we get a taste of a Boris speech at trailer's end hinting at a somewhat optimistic message. Perhaps Woody has finally found a glimmer of meaning in a mostly meaningless universe. And perhaps a feel-goodish ending to a non-feel-good movie is the perfect plot ploy here, since telegraphing one message then veering off to another is a classic comedy formula (most jokes do this -- leading you down road A only to turn onto unexpected road B in the punchline).

In summary, what we seem to have here is a film with fun, funniness, and a fine feel-good final finale. I, for one, can't wait till next week to witness Woody's "Whatever Works" -- and solve the message mystery for myself.

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Find for film freebie fans: a poster for "Whatever Works" - actually autographed by Larry David! - is being given away by those other mavens of mirth, The Onion. Click here for details.

Big Apple big story: To read more about this new movie and its stars, see the recent article in New York magazine featuring Larry and Woody on the cover as the "Last of the Schlemiels". Great article, great cover.

****HEAR LARRY DAVID ON NPR'S "WEEKEND EDITION" - ON MOST NPR STATIONS SATURDAY MORNING JUNE 13**** or online anytime at National Public Radio's website, http://www.npr.org/. Among other things, David discusses his reaction when he got Woody's script and, expecting a small role, saw that his character appears on page 1... and page 50... and at the end! (Looks like it's a Larrypalooza...)