The more you care about Woody Allen and his 40-year career as a writer-director, the more "Whatever Works" will affect you.
In and of itself, this film is no great shakes, but it does make intriguing connections to the Allen of the recent as well as the more distant past, and that is likely to be of interest to true believers.
For one thing, Allen is back in Manhattan for the first time in five films. His vehicle is a sour romantic comedy, only sporadically amusing, about the relationship between Larry David's misanthropic genius and Evan Rachel Wood's dimwitted Southern beauty queen turned young runaway.
The script for "Whatever Works" was apparently first written by Allen more than 30 years ago. He had the great Zero Mostel in mind to star as terminally bitter Boris Yellnikoff (emphasis on "yell"), an authority on quantum mechanics who was once under consideration for the Nobel Prize in physics.
It's not Mostel you will be imagining in this role when you see the film, but Allen himself. There's no doubt that the writer-director's presence would make the script's torrent of dyspeptic lines more palatable than David can. Though perhaps not as compelling a subject as "Stalinism without Stalin" is to Sovietologists, "Allenism without Allen" might be worthy of study by potential film PhDs.
You'll also think of Allen in part because the man played a similarly unpleasant, self-absorbed individual in 1997's "Deconstructing Harry," arguably the last significant film he has turned out. The difference that decade-plus has made in the quality of Allen's output is not a pretty picture.
Given the way it begins, with David's Yellnikoff barking "That's not what I'm saying, imbecile," to a man who is nominally one of his closest friends, one would be forgiven for thinking that "Whatever Works" was going to be as bracing and compelling as "Deconstructing Harry." That doesn't happen, partly because of the nature of the Yellnikoff character and partly because "Whatever Works" turns out to have a bark much worse than its bite.
Yellnikoff and his acerbic broadsides are front and center in this movie, and a certain percentage of them are amusing, as when he says that Kurtz, the hope-deprived protagonist of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," was "lucky he didn't get the New York Times delivered in the jungle."
Or when, as the only character in the film who talks to the audience, he announces, "This is not the feel-good movie of the year."
Yet Yellnikoff's recitation of abuse quickly becomes more repetitive and tiresome than funny. How many times, after all, can you get a laugh by calling people imbeciles?
There's too much hard-edged savagery in David's line readings, much more so than in his own "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and it throws things out of balance.
The form of "Whatever Works" has Yellnikoff, at the urging of his friends, telling his life story. At one time a professor at Columbia comfortably married to a wealthy woman, this paragon is now a divorced teacher of chess to "incompetent zombies" in Manhattan parks.
Things change for Yellnikoff when he meets Melody St. Ann Celestine, once a force in the world of Mississippi beauty pageants but now a homeless waif sleeping near his front door.
Played with unexpected humor and style by Wood, this young woman is so naive and untutored she doesn't understand Yellnikoff's sarcasm and so desperate for a place to stay that she persuades him to let her crash in his living room.
Just like Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," Yellnikoff soon becomes accustomed to Melody's face and stress-free world view. But this essentially two-character drama gets more convoluted and far-fetched when both of her estranged parents, mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and father John (Ed Begley Jr.), come to New York and discover the consciousness-changing powers of this great metropolis.
That synopsis may sound intriguing, but except for brief moments, "Whatever Works" does not involve. The characters are hardly more than stick figures, and both the film's incidents and its dialogue are so arbitrary that they make Allen's previous "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" seem like an epic of neo-realism.
There was a time, in films such as "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," when Allen's characters were both funny and recognizable human beings. Sadly, the work necessary to accomplish that looks to be something the writer-director can't be bothered with anymore.
The title "Whatever Works" is the two-word summation of Yellnikoff's philosophy of existence, the notion that life is so brutal and depressing that "any way you can filch a little joy in this pointless black chaos" should be embraced.
How little joy you are willing to accept from a movie will determine your reaction to this less-than-entrancing film.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters