If you were wondering when would Woody Allen stop making films about himself then perhaps you shouldn't watch Whatever Works. It's not only a film about himself, it's more like a court case for us to believe that him getting along with a young woman is a fair thing to do. Fair? He was actually doing her a favor.
Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame plays Allen's role. Alright, I admit: he's not Allen all the way, but he's close enough. He's old, he's brilliant (a Noble prize candidate for physics), he's paranoid, he's irritating and annoying. He used to be married to a rich wife but now, after trying to commit suicide, he's separated and lives on his own in New York flat under poor conditions. His only company are his friends, old guys who delight in annoying one another.
Then a young girl from the South arrives (Evan Rachel Wood). David's character is kind to her, enough to leave a lasting impression. She asks to stay with him until she can get herself sorted in New York, having escaped her family in the South and being so naive etc. David is reluctant but doesn't really have a choice, the girl really is in trouble. So the girl stays with him, not only for a night or two but for a while. As she's with him, David starts to feel some changes: the girl is becoming more like him, as in smarter; and his vitality is on the rise, too.
Not only is Whatever Works a tool for Allen to deliver his own case to his audience, it's also a tool for him to deliver his philosophies. Allen does not spare us from criticism towards the Republican states and conservatives in general; even religion gets quite a knock. Mostly, though, we hear Allen's rants about the nature of life being unpredictable and the nature of the universe being harsh and indifferent to life. You hear David's character uttering his views and you hear an old man complaining fruitlessly. You hear, I'm alarmed to say, someone that sounds not much unlike me: someone so pessimistic you wonder if he's there to convince you life is so pointless you're better off committing suicide. Obviously, that's not Allen's intention: what he's saying is that whatever works for you is fine, and eventually through some accident - say, meeting a young girl - life would sort itself out for you to the point of becoming worth living. I, on the other hand, do not share Allen's pessimism to the same degree: I like to think I'm in charge of my own life to enough of a degree to have control over it, control that allows me to use my life in order to pursue the goals I set myself. These goals are the things that turn life from a pointless affair of gene survival into the experience of a lifetime. Am I doing as good a job pursuing these goals of mine as I should? Definitely not, which is where I'm thankful for Allen making me think about it in the first place even if I find his philosophy distorted.
Other than the philosophical discussion around which Whatever Works revolves there is not much else to the film. I actually found it a bit boring despite its short length (circa 90 minutes). Some jokes about conservative Southerners suddenly discovering sex or realizing they're gay are not enough to make Whatever Works an hilarious comedy, while David is simply too limited an actor to be truly convincing.
Worst scenes: As the film starts, David abandons his discussion with his friends to talk directly to the camera. At first the gimmick is nice, especially as the film is yet to reach the point where the viewer is so immersed in the viewing experience to be distracted. However, Allen reverts back to this gimmick several times during the film, and there the self attention it demands becomes too annoying. Talking to the camera is a bad habit that can be used here and there to make a point, kind of like starting a sentence with an "And"; but when done too often it leads viewers to realize this trick is more to do with the director's limited vocabulary than trying to make a point.
Technical assessment: Allen's DVDs are always bad given Allen's insistence on mono soundtracks, but Whatever Works breaks new records. The picture is just awful, lacking detail and having inconsistent and distorted colors. The sound is not only monaural, it's also shrill. Why oh why is Allen so conservative in the sound department is beyond me.
Overall: I'll give Whatever Works 3 out of 5 stars, but only because it did make me consider my ways and my philosophies.