Whatever Works: Review

"Whatever Works," Woody Allen's prodigal return to New York, takes the disconcerting form of a disquisition on quantum physics, love and chance, ranted directly to the camera by terminally misanthropic Larry David. Though stuffed with witty one-liners and wondrously convoluted tirades, this far-fetched, deliberately artificial game of musical chairs -- in which mismatched characters encircle, attract and repel each other -- feels forced, often losing itself in excess verbiage. Still, the David/Allen hybrid makes for a fascinating beast, of interest to acolytes of both comedians, if a far cry from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," whose B.O. haul is unlikely to be matched by this June 19 Sony Classics release.

Dusting off a script he wrote more than 30 years ago, Allen casts David as Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant string theorist "almost nominated for the Nobel Prize." Consumed by the big picture of the universe hurtling toward its own extinction, Boris despises all mankind, apparently angry that people are too stupid to be depressed. Having abandoned his rich wife and uptown apartment by jumping out a window in a failed suicide attempt, a limping Boris survives in a dilapidated apartment near Chinatown, supporting himself by teaching chess to little kids he flagrantly insults ("Inchworm!" "Sub-mental cretin!") and hanging out with old academic pals (Michael McKean, Conleth Hill), who are amused but unconvinced by his vitriolic spewings.

Into this semi-hermetic existence stumbles Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young blonde pageant queen from the Deep South, sweet as pie and dumb as dirt. While she cooks him crayfish and calms his anxiety attacks with Fred Astaire movies, Boris alternately bemoans Melody's dimwittedness and regales her eager mind with everything from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to a "Mikado"-like list of petty crimes that should be punishable by death. Much of the pic's comedy revolves around Melody's skewed or surprisingly apt regurgitations of his teachings, and Wood handles the evolution of her improbably Daisy Mae-ish character with surprising finesse.

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