Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr. Comedy. Written & directed by Woody Allen.
FILM SYNOPSIS: An eccentric, neurotic New Yorker played by Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) abandons his upper class life to lead a more Monk-like existence. He meets a young girl from the South, reluctantly allows her to move in, and then he falls for her, which leads to the inevitable May/December relationship. Soon after, the young woman’s folks show up: first the super-religious, drunken, neurotic mother, then the super-religious, philandering neurotic father. Together they stew for 90-some minutes in neuroticism before partners change and life suddenly begins to spin in greased grooves.
PREVIEW REVIEW: I’ve remained a fan of Woody Allen because while most people making comedies today rely either on overly familiar plotlines or scatological crudity, he has always attempted to tell a comic story, the comedy coming from the human condition rather than bodily functions. He’s a true wit. But the bespectacled auteur has tested my loyalty with Whatever Works. Here his tale flatly states that the Christian faith is shallow and untrue. In the story, at least three Christian characters quickly give up lifelong lifestyles when something more satisfying comes along to satisfy the flesh and the devil.
The female lead truly is a bubblehead who is persuaded and dissuaded with ease. Her mother quickly disrobes her plastic “Praise Jesus” mentality in order to become a bohemian artist who sexually partners with two men. And the father, an adulterer who falls on his knees begging God for forgiveness (for no other real purpose than to set up the lead actor’s cynical response), suddenly reveals his hidden homosexual tendencies.
The trouble with the characters is their dispiriting shallowness, not to mention an overall lack of dedication to the cinematic art of acting. Each wants to escape traditional values, but it’s not clear by film’s end what they’ve gained by switching lifestyles and partners. They have abandoned any possibility of God’s sovereignty or grace. They see nothing more than the momentary. And like little children, they want everything and expect to pay for nothing.
What’s more, the film’s people serve the author/director by providing little more than comic fodder. Well, sometimes. Our screening group laughed at some gags, but not as often as I suspect Mr. Allen would have liked. As one critic put it (A. O. Scott from the New York Times) “…the delivery is off.”
The lead is so morose in his megalomaniac mentoring that he comes across as a draconian version of the writer/director. And though Mr. David has his own distinctive persona, the rhythm of the dialogue and the character traits (his nature is soothed when viewing Fred Astaire movies) are distinctly Woody Allen. Though Woody has proven his ability to develop screen characters that lack his eccentricities (Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Interiors), here he stays close to familiar ground. It’s typical Woody, only with a more outright discursive anecdotal disfavor for life and religion.
As for his Christian characters, they are conceptualized like American characters in a BBC sit-com presentation – they just don’t feel like real people. As a Christian sitting there, I couldn’t relate to any of their religious pronouncements because they weren’t coming from conviction. The actors played their roles tongue in cheek, giving the distinct impression that they enjoyed ridiculing people of faith. Of course, they would say, we’re just ridiculing the phonies. Yeah, try doing that with any other group. “We’re just making fun of bad blacks or bad Jews or bad gays.” One has to be very careful these days in our society with ridiculing any group or you’re considered a bigot. Yet somehow, all Christians are lumped into a negative category by countless filmmakers.
Though I wouldn’t mean this as a judgment of their real-life spiritual convictions, I got the distinct impression that no one playing a Christian in this movie really was one. I don’t think you have to be a Christian to play a Christian, but it’s a fine line to tread. It’s difficult to present spiritual sensibilities on screen, especially while your actors are trying to be cutesy about it.
The film lacks the moral complexity of Match Point or the intelligent wit of Annie Hall, or even the joyous buffoonery of Take the Money and Run. It’s almost mean spirited in its delivery, and by film’s end, Mr. Allen seems to suggest that whatever works for you to get through this life is fine – except a belief in God. According to this movie, if you’re hoping for Heaven, you’re not just misled, you’re a cretin.
DVD Alternatives: The Awful Truth. This classic screwball comedy has Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a divorced couple sabotaging each other’s new relationships. Grant reveals his expert touch with physical and verbal comic timing. Forget its age, it’s a perfect comedy.
Beauty and the Beast (1946 French version with Jean Cocteau). In order to save her father, a beautiful girl agrees to live with a feared wolf-like beast. But after time passes, they learn to love one another. This moody, atmospheric B&W rendition of the classic tale is a masterpiece. In French, with subtitles, it is both beguiling and fanciful.
The Gospel. A semi-autobiographical film about the transformative power of faith and forgiveness, The Gospel is a contemporary drama packed with the soaring, soulful sounds of gospel music. Set in the impassioned world of the African-American church, The Gospel tells the story of David Taylor (Boris Kodjoe), a dynamic young R&B star torn between his successful new life and the one he used to know.
Down In The Delta. A Christian mother sends her substance-abusing daughter to relatives down South. There, she learns about responsibility and the importance of family. Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Jr., Wesley Snipes, Loretta Devine.
C.S. Lewis’ Through The Shadowlands. Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom star as C.S. Lewis and an American woman who begin a relationship through letters, then fall in love. While Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger do a great job with their interpretation, this 1985 British version is a superb character study.