“What do you want from me? I’m tired!“
Woody Allen’s films are very much about Woody Allen, and that’s fine. Like white on black text in Windsor font, we’ve come to expect self-indulgence from him. This self-indulgence isn’t so irritating when the work is also poignant. Stardust Memories is one of the most narcissistic films Allen has crafted, but it has a genuine melancholy charm. There was a time when Allen’s films—particularly when he collaborated with the great cinematographer Gordon Willis—were true Cinema (with a capital C). The opening montage of Manhattan set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is iconic and breathtaking. Most of his recent efforts have seem rushed, half-hearted, and amateurish—as if he wrote the scripts in a day and scrambled to get some celebrities together to walk around in apartments, parks and sit in restaurants delivering the lines. His films have always had this star-studded ensemble feel, but the early works also had a haunting nostalgic aesthetic that lent them a grace that the recent films lack. Like most of the Allen films of the past decade, Whatever Works comes off like the desperate ramblings of a man who has already made his point and just wants to keep talking so nobody forgets he’s in the room. Even as I typed that last sentence, I realized that it goes a little deeper than that; he continues to ramble to distract himself from the fact that he’s going to die.
Boris (Larry David) is cynical and misanthropic. In his younger days, he was a brilliant physicist who specialized in quantum mechanics. Now he’s just a grumpy old man who hates people and kvetches about entropy and the evils of human nature. Here is an example of his mindset: “Parents should send their children to a concentration camp for a few weeks so that they can learn what the human race is capable of.”
He meets a young southern belle who pops out of the garbage—literally! Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a naïve girl from the south, homeless and wandering the streets of New York, had been sleeping a pile of garbage just outside his apartment. She pleads with him to take her in and, after much grumbling, he does. What follows is Melody being adorable, optimistic, flirtatious, full of youthful exuberance and Boris showing contempt for her yet tolerating her presence in his life. He dutifully tries to push her away and tell her to seek out younger men and a life outside of the boring existence he’s fashioned for himself. It is a half-hearted effort, and does not repel her in the least; she seems charmed by his crotchety persona.
Then suddenly, when she begins to show signs of cynicism, he is completely swept off his feet and decides to marry her. The cynicism she projects isn’t even her own! She merely parrots him, and badly too. She doesn’t understand any of what she’s spewing, but he becomes quite enamoured when she tries to emulate him. And so, they get married, and the rest of the film depicts the following year and involves some hijinks with her parents who show up and transform from religious fundamentalists to cosmopolitan free-loving bohemians—all as result of the magic of New York.
There is a scene where a handsome young man, prompted by her mother, pretends to happen upon Melody at a market. He approaches her with the ruse that he’d like to buy a gift for “this girl he knows” and he’d like her female opinion on which fabric to choose. She asks him to describe this girl. Beginning with physical characteristics, and then progressing to very specific details of Melody’s life, he describes her in perfect detail. Melody, rather than be charmed or annoyed by this obvious ploy, is mystified and says, “Sounds so familiar.” It is ridiculous, in a live-action movie about supposedly real people, that she could possibly be portrayed as so very dumb.
After all the shenanigans, there is this overall theme of there being something better just around the corner. You might think you’re happy with your life, but somebody might fall from a window and land on you, or pop out of a pile of garbage to make your life better. The person you’re with now, and the life you lead, is probably not the best for you. Always be on the lookout for newer and more inspiring people. And men, you’ll always find that perfect love in someone younger! Look for younger! Don’t settle for those old people who happen to be your age.
While much of the dialogue is clever and contains many of his trademark obsessions—the meaningless of life and culture juxtaposed with our intense human need to sustain both—there is something about the scenes that seem hollow, as if Woody Allen no longer knows how—or is too tired—to show us the loneliness of existence, and is content with simply telling us. Larry David as Boris spends much of the film shrugging his shoulders and lifting his hands in a what-do-you-want-from-me gesture. This is how I imagine Woody Allen walking around the set. “You want me to say something cinematically? What do you want from me? I’m old and tired. Just shut up and listen.”
The opening scene of Stardust Memories, with Woody trapped in the train—the relentless ticking of the clock, the dour realism of chugging along to his death—looking out at another train where, inside, he can see a party in full swing. Those happy people, we all know, are headed toward the same fate, but they sure as hell are going to have a good time on their journey. With no dialogue, he perfectly captured our human need to find pleasant distractions from the reality of our impending demise, and the tragic knowledge that—regardless of what we do or how we do it—our existence will eventually end. In three minutes, with only sound and image, he conveyed all of those existential terrors that Boris kvetches about for and hour and a half—and more aptly too!
Whatever works? I say—dig a little deeper, try a little harder, and maybe we can achieve something that, if only for a moment, transcends.
Whatever Works (2009)
Written and Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson