Thursday, July 01, 2010

Woody Allen: When it Works, it Works

Woody Allen's new film, Whatever Works hits screens this week. This enjoyable and heartfelt comedy is one of his more likeable efforts in recent years. Consistency has never been Woody Allen's strong point. His repertoire has certainly had incredible moments of genius but it is also peppered with some unfortunate cases of mediocrity and even some downright terrible films (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, anyone?). In the 50 years or so that Woody has been making movies, the divide between the good and the bad films have grown into canyons. Perhaps the reason for this is that Woody Allen is one of the only directors who has complete and total creative control over all of his work. That luxury is every director's dream, but perhaps it is sometimes more of hindrance than a help.

When watching one of Allen's less successful endeavours one can't help but wonder if the film would have been improved by someone telling him to cop himself on. One of his most notorious commercial failures was the 2007 film Cassandra's Dream starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor. This film is definitely amongst his darker work, a twisted morality tale that balances broad comedy and philosophy very nicely indeed. Cassandra's Dream is a beautiful script with two first-class leading actors. The problem is it feels like it was directed by an amateur. It is an ugly film to watch, with no regard for style or attention to detail. The performances felt somewhat stilted, and despite the best efforts of the cast, the film just felt a little "off". Maybe this script could have become the film it deserved to be if it had a director who put in the effort, or if that director had perhaps had some studio standards to comply with.

That being said, for every Cassandra's Dream, there's a Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a joyous celebration of love and life that proves beyond any doubt that he's still got the skills and they're as sharp as they were in the 70's. Watching Whatever Works evokes questions about the pros and cons of the way Woody Allen makes films. Despite the inconsistency in the quality of his output Allen is still pumping out at least one film a year, sometimes more. Some of them are wonderfully fresh and honest, while others are contrived and bordering on self-parody. Whatever Works is fortunately one of his better efforts. It feels in every way like classic Woody Allen, and Larry David proves to be inspired casting in the leading role. In the film he plays Boris, a grumpy, ageing science genius who embarks upon a relationship with beautiful young bimbo Melody (a wonderful Evan Rachel Wood) and as a result gets pulled into her world and the world of her family. Slowly but surely, Boris' life and attitudes begin to change as he realises that over-thinking things isn't always wise and that life is all about "whatever works".

The charm of this film lies in the simplicity and beauty of its central philosophy. If looked at within that context, Allen's career can be given a brand new perspective. Maybe this is more than just a nice story, maybe this explains a lot about Woody's work in recent years. His films can be seen as experiments, as ideas that he brings to fruition by any means necessary. Some of them become great films, some of them become giant failures, but Woody's intention is to be as prolific as possible in the hope that all of his stories get told, some more successfully than others. It might be said that he believes that, at this late stage in his life, he can afford to take risks and hope for the best. Instead of getting bogged down in trying to find perfection, maybe he feels that it is a case of "whatever works" when it comes to his films.

Woody Allen is one of those rare people in the world who is so ingrained in modern culture that there is nothing he can't survive. He has survived a very public failed marriage, a gigantic sex scandal, and a string of commercial failures. The fact that his films are rarely commercially successful has never resulted in an inability to get more films made. Woody Allen is a legend, and I can't think of another director about whom the phrase "return to form" has been used so much. His audience can rest assured that if he makes a bad movie, chances are, his next one will make up for it. His legendary status allows him the freedom to do whatever he pleases. The idea that Woody is simply trying to get every story he has in his brain on to the big screen is noble enough to forgive any missteps he has taken along the way. At the end of the day, he is still one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today and it is clear that he still has plenty to say about the human condition and the complex nature of love. And let's not forget beneath the clever philosophising, he is a razor-sharp comedian and a genius wordsmith and that will always make a Woody Allen film in some way enjoyable. Despite his hiccups, there are still great moments of brilliance to Woody Allen's career and at 75 years old, the cultural awareness in his films is admirable. It‘s safe to say that although his experiments are not always successful, when it works, it really, really works.

 - Charlene Lydon for Totally Dublin.

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