Larry David stands in for Woody Allen in "Whatever Works." (Sony Pictures Classics)
Over the past few decades, there have been countless movie fans who've expressed a longing for Woody Allen to make the sort of films "he used to, back when he was funny."
Well, "Whatever Works," based on a screenplay Allen wrote in the '70s, is very much the movie those fans have longed for. Allen originally wrote it with Zero Mostel in mind as the lead character, but Mostel passed away long ago and now the film has been made with Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") playing the traditional "Woody" character.
And that is the film's great weakness, David being nobody's idea of an actor. The real question is: Why didn't Woody just play the Woody character? Nobody delivers Woody lines like Woody. Oh, well.
Maybe it had something to do with the character's love life hitting too close to home. David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a cranky 60-ish jerk and self-proclaimed genius who's left life as a physics professor to eke out a New York living teaching chess to rich kids he mainly insults.
One day he returns home to find a teen girl (Evan Rachel Wood in a surprisingly deft comic turn) on his doorstep, begging for food. He takes her in and becomes bedazzled by her complete cluelessness. And so she stays. And eventually they get married.
And live happily ever after until her mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up and life (or Woody Allen's life) begins to intrude.
There are a lot of very funny lines in "Whatever Works" and despite Boris' bleak outlook on life, things remain comparatively light.
But David strains too much in a role that requires utter confidence. The result is a witty, well-played work without an adequate center. If you can get past that, "Whatever Works" does.