Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Curb Your Expectations

As an actor, Larry David is a great comedy writer. His blunt, declamatory line readings on Curb Your Enthusiasm make you appreciate how well Jason Alexander channeled David’s neuroses on Seinfeld. Surprisingly, David is a pretty serviceable Woody Allen surrogate in Allen’s latest, Whatever Works, which finds Allen on New York home turf after a string of movies set in England and Spain. Casting about for a new movie, Allen dusted off and updated a script he wrote in the’70s for Zero Mostel.

The great Zero is long dead, so we have David as Boris Yellnikov, the misanthropic ex-physicist who rants against everything from religion to love and dismisses most human beings as “incompetent morons” and “inchworms.” “The basic teachings of Jesus and Karl Marx — all great ideas with one fatal flaw,” he declaims. “The fallacious notion that people are fundamentally decent.” The persona is as familiar as a cranky old friend, and while Woody is still best at inhabiting it, David is far from the worst fit — that honor would go to Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, hands down.

The story is a sporadically funny farce centering on Boris, a divorced hermit who walks with a limp after a failed suicide attempt (he hit a canopy after jumping out a window) and spends his days waxing philosophical with his friends (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks, Lyle Kanouse) and teaching chess to children, which provides the opportunity for funny scenes of Boris verbally abusing the kids.

One night Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty teenage runaway from the South, appears at the doorstep of his dismal apartment. Boris, who has given up even on sex, is reluctant to take her in, but schools her in his obsessions and attitudes, which she adopts with precision. He marries the girl, and her honeyed optimism has a tonic effect on him. The farce cranks up when Melodie’s mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) arrives, her Bible Belt faith providing a target for Boris’ unending derision. Manhattan is seductive to Marietta, who transforms herself into a bohemian artiste. Her estranged husband (Ed Begley Jr.), comes looking for her and finds a new identity in the big city as well. As always with Allen’s romances, the young woman tires of her cranky, neurotic older mate, and a series of un-couplings and re-couplings occur. The redemptive finale, reminiscent of Hannah and Her Sisters, is unexpectedly uplifting.

We could quibble for days over Allen’s recurrent themes of older males romancing inappropriately young females (a scene in which Boris sits with the camisole-clad girl watching Fred Astaire on TV is iconic), and admittedly it’s a strange fixation in art and in life. Some people still have not forgiven him for what they perceive as his sins, but his attitude is reasonably expressed by the movie’s title.

(A shorter version of this appeared on the Cleveland Scene website.)

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