When I left the screening room for Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, N.Y., my chin was on the ground. Sitting through Kaufman’s view of life was one big bummer. Okay, art-film-lovers would make a cult of this one, but for old gals like me who have actually been through almost one whole life…give me a break. A guy called after me as I was searching for the rest room: Is this really the way life really is? “F*** no!” I answered. Trust me — problems and all, life has more promise and infinitely more interesting drama.
I thought, Please, someone out there, play it as it really is. So…when I left the Laemmle Santa Monica after seeing Whatever Works, I soared. Yes! That’s it! And in spite of lousy reviews — okay, mixed: The New York Times hated it, Time loved it, with caveats, Buzzine‘s own two reviewers were yes and a no – I felt that finally, Woody Allen, in this one and in his long body of work, said what I knew to be true:
Life looks like a disordered mess, but in the very long run, if you go for love as best you can, understand yourself as a character in your own drama, never give up the struggle….and if you can laugh at the irony…all in all, it’s well worth the trip.
Okay, you say, this is Woody Allen, not Thoreau. This is entertainment, not Philosophy 2A. It’s comedy and it’s supposed to end upbeat and funny. But Woody Allen is not a writer of conventional comedies where the gorgeous wedding planner wins the heart of the doctor her client was supposed to marry. He’s our Charlie Chaplin, the funny old tramp with the crazy shoes who goes for it and survives in a cold, unpredictable world. He’s our Woody, a short, hollow-chested, balding Jewish guy plagued by fears and doubts who launches into the world with dutch-courage and humor and manages to survive. I take my Woody Allen seriously.
In Whatever Works, Larry David plays a schmucky way-beyond-negative ex-professor who was a maven at string theory. Actually, I don’t know string theory, but I do have a bit of chaos theory (before showing Arcadia, the theater that presented Tom Stoppard’s brilliant comedy offered a lecture on chaos theory to explain the play). As I understand it, rightly or wrongly, you look at what seems to be a disordered mess and, if you follow it long enough, you begin to see not only the pattern but the actual beauty of it.
In Woody Allen films, no God has an eye on the sparrow. In Hannah and Her Sisters, he tells us to stop trying to figure life out but simply enjoy the voyage. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, no God judges the murderer, but Fate has its own design – Fate being sort of a comedian in a sky, a rather benign, funny guy who, unlike God, seems to preside over life without being so judgmental. In Crimes, the murderer escapes punishment. In Matchpoint, ditto. Fate sees to it that the big-clue wedding ring hits a post and is picked up by some bum who will take the blame. In Mighty Aphrodite, the double-switch of babies is neatly carried out by Fate and, in the end, it all works out.
Sure, it’s just a movie, but looking back at real life (not reel life), some tragedies actually turned into opportunities…sometimes you caught it but sometimes you got away with it. And if it went really wrong, you can see now how much better you could have managed with a little humor. That sounds sophomoric, but…what can I say…it happens.
Woody Allen wrote Whatever Works thirty years ago for that bulgy-eyed, over-the-top comedian Zero Mostel (of the original Producers) but didn’t actually make it until…well… Allen was born in ’35 and that makes him 73. In Whatever Works, New York’s most most negative schmuck (spoiler coming) finds a beautiful young girl on his doorstep, she takes him for a teacher, giving her own spin to his murky philosophy, and loves him enough to keep Viagra in her purse for his pleasure. Her angry, ultra-religious mother ends up in a loving menage-a-trois, her ultra-religious father finds himself a happy homosexual lover, and when finally the young wife leaves him for a real hunk, he tries to kill himself, jumps out of a window, and lands on the only woman who can truly make him happy…and, because she’s a psychic, she knew this was coming and forgives him for breaking her leg. You call it comedy; I’ll take it as a metaphor.
Maybe you’re with the New York Times guy and you find this less story-pleasing than Hannah or Annie Hall. But if you’re a young reader still in school with an assignment to read Neitzche, skip the essay of that downer-guy and spend a while with Woody and Whatever Works, and understand that you’re in for a long journey (knock wood), and however crummy it feels at any given moment, love what is love for you, keep doing whatever fun thing that works for you, and at the end, which will be filled with irony — not even Houdini could escape that one — you can come to accept and love the drama, recognize the comedy; you’ll understand that you’ve been damn lucky to have such a good ride through an interesting life, and you may be a little long in the tooth and slow on the trail, but kiddo, you’re still hanging in there, laughing.