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A great schlep: Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood in "Whatever Works"

Whatever Works: now there's a title that suggests the throwing in of towels. Woody Allen, having done his tour of London and Europe and produced a string of mostly critically mauled duds, has for his latest movie returned to Manhattan, to his own turf and people. That is, to the world of sophisticated liberal intellectual types who find it hard to use two words where 20 will do, who kvetch about love and God and what it all means and whether it's all worth it in the first place. And what has he come up with? A comedy, which, even while it goes through the motions, feels like an exhausted postscript to years of analysis. Can relationships really work? Who is the right person for us? How does the can-opener work? Well now, just relax: whatever gets you through the night.

Last month in this column, I bemoaned the changes in New York that had robbed Allen of his natural territory. Years of Carrie Bradshaw, Mayor Giuliani and perhaps even 9/11 had changed his habitat. His people no longer defined the culture, nor could his films. But there are still pockets of his tribe, mostly on the Upper West Side. For this, his first New York comedy in a good decade, Woody settles on a small bunch of individuals and their intertwining relationships, and attempts to breathe some new air into what has become a very claustrophobic little space. 

At the centre of the movie is Boris, a misanthrope with suicidal tendencies who rails against the rampant, non-stop stupidity around him. A physicist once considered for a Nobel Prize, Boris is a world-class hater, who propounds his nihilism straight to camera and who, I imagine, is actually meant to be viewed by us as crusty but loveable. The truth, however, is that, as played by the cult comic actor Larry David (of the much-praised TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm), Boris is the nasty type of man any sentient being would cross the road to avoid. He is casually and cuttingly rude to children and animals, cruel to old people and bitter about where he finds himself in life. 

He's also, it would seem, a babe magnet. David is playing the Woody persona here and despite his physical plainness and egocentrism, he manages to attract the at-first unwelcome attentions of Melody, a stray but very appealing young runaway from the South (Evan Rachel Wood) who's sleeping rough outside his apartment (he's already separated from his beautiful, accomplished therapist wife). 

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