Woody Allen used to be great. Everyone knows this. His romantic comedies, especially the spectacular Manhattan and Annie Hall can be seen as direct influences on the remarkably few impressive romantic comedies of recent years (Garden State, Away We Go and (500) Days of Summer immediately spring to mind.). He had a way of bringing to the screen the wonderful awkwardness of love and romance in the modern world. Now, however, things have changed. After the relative success of Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, the flaws of which were masked out by the beauty of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, we are faced with Whatever Works.
Larry David is, on the surface, a great surrogate Allen. He has made a name for himself as an insecure, neurotic New York Jew, a persona which has gained him a cult comedic following similar to that of his director, but where Woody playing Woody is charming, self deprecating and hilarious, David’s portrayal comes off as whining, unlikable and altogether unfunny. Because of this failure, the rest of the film makes little sense. Why should the ever sparkling Evan Rachel Wood fall for him when all he ever does is call her a cretin? Their relationship is so unrealistic and one sided that at times it is reminiscent of incestuous abuse. The audience, rather than simply expecting it to fail, actively wills it to.
The strange pacing of the film means that we spend far too long on the duller parts of the story; his moaning about the futility of life, his moaning about how love doesn’t exist, his moaning about her stupidity, his moaning about everything else under the sun; and are left hardly any time to linger on the only parts of the film which really work. As I’ve said, Evan Rachel Wood is wonderful, as she always is. She invests Melody with an innocent enthusiasm for life and a willingness to see the best in people which makes her attraction to David’s Boris all the more unbelievable. Patricia Clarkson as her mother, Marietta, is also a high point. Clarkson is hilarious throughout Marietta’s transformation from bible bashing southern belle to sexually liberated New York photographer. It’s high time that woman got an Oscar. The best parts of the film are, in my opinion, the rare scenes where Boris is not present. The sub-plots are where the magic happens. The love stories which hold the audience’s interest are between Melody and Randy (the unbelievably beautiful Henry Cavill), and Marietta and her curators. This is where we catch a brief glimpse of the true Woody Allen magic, but all too quickly we are brought back to Larry David doing a poor impression of this once great man. If it is true that Annie Hall was a film found in the cutting room of a much larger project, one wishes that Whatever Works was only the greater starting point from which the stories of Melody or Marietta could be discovered.
I want Ricky Gervais to fail. I’m desperate for it. I long for the day when he makes something that isn’t immediately met with both public and critical acclaim. He’s just too damn smug for his own good and he’s long overdue for a failure. That day has been a long time coming, and it looks like I’m in for an even longer wait.
Cemetery Junction tells the story of three lads from just outside Reading who long for an escape. Set in the mid 70s, it’s all brown and orange, bad hair and bad prospects, and it’s beautiful. Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the ‘geniuses’ behind The Office, and Extras have created a film what you can’t help but be drawn into, no matter how much you’re willing it to fail.
It is a comedy, and there are lines so recognizably Ricky that they seem to come through the actors’ mouths by some feat of ventriloquism, but it is also a masterfully crafted, subtle and melancholic tale of longing, dissatisfaction and the daily grind. The characters are all stuck and desperate for a seemingly non-existent way out, through whichever means are available to them. Freddie, the generically good looking Christian Cooke, gets a job selling life insurance, working under a wonderfully horribly Ralph Feinnes. He is re-introduced to Julie, his childhood sweetheart and new boss’s daughter, who is engaged to the magnificent and despicable Matthew Goode (oh how I love him, he can do no wrong!). From the start, we know how their story will end, but they’re fun enough to watch along the way. Snork, played by Jack Doolan, is given short shrift. More a comedy sidekick than a character in his own right, he is nevertheless given one of the sweetest, most awkward moments in the film, and pulls it off beautifully. Which leaves us with Bruce. Bruce Pearson, played by the disturbingly attractive newcomer Tom Hughes, reads like a younger, sexier Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He struts about, bursting with infectious confidence, wolfish grin and barely contained rage. His bursts of violence scattered throughout the film bring home to the audience how futile life can feel when you’re young, handsome and have absolutely nothing to lose. His is the story the audience connect to, the film seems to pick up pace whenever he is on screen.
While I am willing to concede that Ricky Gervais is a good writer, I was hoping that the direction would let him down but, sadly for me, the film displays a sure-handedness of someone far more experienced in the field. The shots are beautifully set up, the editing is well paced, the soundtrack is great, even the production and set design is spot on. Annoyingly enough, I’m hard pressed to find a single aspect of the film I can fault. Well cast, well acted, stunningly written, I am reluctant to say that this is one of the most enjoyable and moving films I’ve seen in a while. While not great art, it is definitely great fun. Looks like I’ll just have to keep waiting for the day when Ricky fails.