Most reviewers thought Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona was a fabulous return to form. The film even won the director a belated Oscar. I found it hard to reconcile the general praise with my own sense that the movie represented the most catastrophic artistic collapse since Ben Jonson’s ‘dotages’. That sense has been confirmed by Allen’s new film, Whatever Works. I wanted to love it, because I have loved so many Woody Allen films. But as in VCB, the characters are reduced to crude sketches of embodied attitudes, resembling no human being who ever lived or ever will. One of them is a ‘romantic’: we know this a) because he lives on a houseboat and b) because on several occasions he tells someone so.
In both VCB and Whatever Works there is a scene in which a man praises the beauty and subtlety of a woman’s photographs. In both cases what we see of those photographs is kitsch and derivative. What’s going on in those moments? In the old great Woody Allen films, the audience would know that the photographs were meant to be kitsch and so be in on the flirtatious intent behind the praise. In the old passionate Woody Allen films, the photographs would have been as beautiful and as subtle as they were said to be. But in the new films these moments are unreadable – at least to me – because they are hurriedly drawn pictures of something that the films themselves cannot express.
Worst of all, the tone is oddly off-key. The part of the Woody stand-in (that obligatory character) is taken by Larry David. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, David brilliantly transforms charmlessness into charm; but not here. His character rails against life, against the stupidity of others, against the violence of the world, but the vituperation is neither funny nor sympathetic.
At least Whatever Works is a return to New York after Allen’s English and Spanish sojourns, and the city is the real hero of the film, as it turns an NRA-supporting family of Southern hicks into sexually liberated cosmopolitan types: artists, antique-dealers, passionate lovers. At some distance behind this flat-footed movie is another paean to Manhattan, in which the ‘Deep South’s’ Lula-Mae Barnes becomes the city’s glossy Holly Golightly.