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Originally published July 2, 2009 at 2:14 PM | Page modified July 7, 2009 at 2:54 PM

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Movie review

Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" occasionally works

Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson sparkle in Woody Allen's otherwise dull "Whatever Works." Review by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

"Whatever Works," with Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Conleth Hill. Written and directed by Woody Allen. 92 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material. Several theaters; see page 17.

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There are funny moments in Woody Allen's "Whatever Works." Lots of them. And that, weirdly, makes the whole experience even worse; it's a movie that feels assembled from the leftovers Allen found in his fridge. Like anybody's fridge, a few morsels are choice, but most are stale. Overall, "Whatever Works" leaves a bad taste behind.

After filming his past four films overseas (three of which — "Match Point," "Scoop" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" — were pretty good), Allen's back in New York and back to his old tricks. "Whatever Works" is from a screenplay that's been sitting around for a while; Allen has said that it was originally intended for Zero Mostel, who died in 1977. Maybe it would have been fresh then. The central character is a 60-something curmudgeon, Boris (Larry David, who delivers every line in the same bellowing drone), who's bitter about life, love and everything else. "On the whole, we're a failed species," he says.

His bitterness is challenged by a blond bundle of sweetness, light and naiveté: Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a dimwitted runaway from the South who appears to still be in her teens (she says she's 21 but is clearly fibbing), and who begs accommodation in Boris' grubby apartment for the night. She stays for a while, bouncing around in her pigtails and short shorts, presumably charmed by the way he's always telling her how dumb she is. They get married, because — oh, I don't know, beautiful teenagers always marry crabby geezers who insult them. As Boris would say, whatever.

And then Melody's mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up, and her father (Ed Begley Jr.), and some magical Manhattan things happen, and Boris talks to the camera a lot before finding his humanity. Along the way, various Allen messages are conveyed: Old movies are good, rock music is bad, wax statues of Donald Trump are always funny (well, he's right about that one), and relationships are complicated and not necessarily permanent. "You have to have a little faith in people," says Melody. No, wait, that's what Mariel Hemingway said in "Manhattan." Never mind.

All of this has been done before, and much better, by Allen himself. It's saved by a generous handful of funny one-liners (Allen, in his mid-70s, still has the touch) and a couple of sparkling performances. Wood finds just the right sweet twist for Melody's airy drawl; trying to absorb the wisdom Boris has given her, she earnestly tells someone, "Nothing lasts forever, even Shakespeare and Michelangelo and Greek people." And Clarkson, one of cinema's gems, makes Melody's fluttery mother both hilarious and touching as she makes her own journey of self-discovery. The two make a heaven-sent mother- daughter duo; pity they're not gracing a better movie.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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