Whenever we play that pick-up game of softball, we swing and miss exactly the same way we did before. And we’re just as appalled at our play as we were last time.
We order the same pepperoni that gives us heart burn. We make the same mistakes in love. And our friends know to commiserate about it and not point out how idiotic we were — again.
We’re repetitive idiots, but in that repetition is a sort of solace. It’s reassuring to know we are irredeemably — and hopelessly — ourselves. Sure we could learn from our mistakes, if we were Olympic athletes, stopwatch in hand. But right now, the absurdity of repeating mistakes — and yeah, we know that’s the definition of lunacy — suits us just fine. Our illusions keep us going.
I’m trying to find the nice, humanistic way to explain Woody Allen’s movies in general — and "Whatever Works" in particular. But that glow of universal warmth is dimming fast. Not because I am past being sick of seeing the same old white opening titles on black. Or hearing jokes built around existential despair. Or seeing another mechanically written drama set in Manhattan.
What’s irking my post-boredom exasperation is an Allen motif that has raised its tiresome head once too often. It’s the one about an old man getting to enjoy the physical pleasures of a young woman.
Remember it in "Stardust Memories," when the aging filmmaker (played, natch, by Allen) at the center of the story fends off a young groupie who wants to have sex with him, while her husband waits indulgently outside the hotel? Or "Mighty Aphrodite," in which an older man (Allen, whaddya know) becomes fasccinated with finding the birth mother of his adopted son? Turns out that mom’s a young hooker (Mira Sorvino). And although Allen’s character doesn’t have sex with her at first, he does get to have sex with her soon enough.
Things happen like that, in a Woody Allen movie. And in real life, too. We remember the early 1990s tabloid melodrama, starring Allen, Mia Farrow and her very young adopted daughter, Soon-Yi — the future Mrs. Woody Allen.
In "Whatever Works," another Allen alter ego — played this time by Larry David — is a misanthropic sourpuss given to darkly witty pronoucnements. He spends most of his time, either moping around his New York home in a bathrobe — or venturing out to dispense his life-hating bromides to his friends. He limps, too, from a failed suicide attempt. (Jumped from an upstairs window, landed on a woman. She saved his life but he permanently damaged his leg.)
One Woody Allen wish fulfillment day, a gorgeous simpleton (Evan Rachel Wood) from the south comes into his life. She’s a homeless waif, looking for room, board and a father figure. His first instincts are to send her away, but he can’t help noticing the advantages to inviting her in.
Within a matter of screen moments, they’re married. And the old crank and the innocent sprite are a match made in Allen’s heaven. (Being from the South, in Allen’s world view, she’s flighty and stupid, of course. So we are not to be too surprised that she’s perfectly fine with the arrangement.)
This situation is meant to be a mere conduit for Allen’s musings on the usual things he muses about. But those musings are so empty, so mechanically conceived, it seems pretty clear there was really only one cathartic agenda for this particular scenario.
Woody wanted to bed another young ‘un, albeit vicariously.
The point is not to express faux shock that Allen might be a dirty old man. That’s hardly earth-shattering news. What’s more galling is the length he goes to, pretending to explore the conceit as an artistic idea. As a human, he has the right to repeat dumb mistakes. But as the artist he claims to be, surely he has some kind of obligation to show us something insightful.
Surely there should be a reason to show us another movie about an old man and a young girl other than to satisfy an obvious itch.
Those of us who grew up with Allen from the beginning, I believe, did so because of his wit, his comedy, his brain. But perhaps we should have seen the future when — in one of his early films — he quipped "My brain — that’s my second favorite organ."