The tempting thing would be to make some kind of jokes on the model of "Whatever Works doesn't" and call it a day, but that's a fairly unlovely pun, and besides, however far Woody Allen might fall in any given film from the heights of his greatest work, he deserves more respect than that kind of curt dismissal.

Whatever Works, as has become fairly well-known, was first written in the late 1970s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, with whom Allen had just co-starred in 1976's The Front; sadly, Mostel's death quickly squelched that idea and Allen shelved the project, moving on to such minor stop-gap measures as Annie Hall and Manhattan. But at some point in the recent past, he found himself without a screenplay when the time came to direct his annual movie for 2009, and so he dusted off the old project, quickly giving it a few cosmetic changes so that you might not notice at first that it's 33 years out of date, and pushed it through production, having found in fellow neurotic misanthropic Jewish comedian Larry David a figure that matched the role's self-righteous unpleasantness and barking condescension.

It doesn't work, though I'm still not certain if Allen or David bears more responsibility for that. For David's part, the thin line separating his persona from Allen's is one that falls on the side of more meanness and anger, and he plays the part accordingly - leaving a character who isn't so mean that he's funny, like in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but who is so mean that he's just not that much fun to watch. It's difficult not to think of Zero playing the same character, giving him that larger-than-life biliousness that made all of his best characters so zingy; honestly, even Allen himself would have been a significant improvement, if only because when he says something scabrous and nasty, he puts a spin on it so that you know it's a joke and not just a really bitter insult.

On the other hand, Allen is the ultimate motivating force behind this screenplay, and it was his choice to present Boris Yellnikoff as a blowhard know-it-all who we're apparently supposed to agree with, at least partially; it's not very easy to tell where Boris is being an egotistical jackass and where he's voicing Allen's honest observations about life and humanity. Either way, Whatever Works approaches the line that's ever-present in Allen's films dividing funny misanthropy from sour misanthropy, and tramples all over it on the way to becoming the writer-director's least enjoyable "comedy" ever. Save for the final few minutes, in which all of the characters reach some manner of important self-awareness and closure, there's nothing at all in the film to keep it from ranking among his most callous and unpleasant films ever.

So, the plot: Boris (David) is an aging New York intellectual, a retired quantum physicist with a genius-level IQ, who has nothing but contempt for everyone else he meets who isn't as smart as he is, calling them names like "moron", "idiot", and "inchworm". One night, he meets a runaway named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a naΓ―ve girl from Mississippi who meets with his instant loathing for her religion and her lack of nihilistic despair. Naturally, they fall in love, and end up getting married, with Boris playing the Casaubon to her Dorothea Brooke, although the literary archetype that Allen specifically and ham-handedly calls out is Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.

After a time, Melodie's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up, having been separated from her husband; she instantly takes a dislike to the creepy, unhappy old man who's stolen away her daughter, but it only takes a few months in Manhattan for the rest of her red state conservatism to melt away into the life of a bohemian artist. Still, she can't stand Boris, and tries to force Melodie together with a charming Brit named Randy James (Henry Cavill). A while later, Melodie's father John (Ed Begley, Jr.) arrives, and goes through much the same arc as Marietta did.

Woody Allen is not one of those filmmakers who doesn't understand what his movies say about himself and his entire corpus of work, and with a couple more rewrites, Whatever Works could have been a fairly brilliant send-up of so many of his favorite tropes: the fairly gross May-December romance, intellectuals who love to hear themselves talk, the transformative power of New York City on flyover state commoners, the way that his particular variety of atheism marries a crippling fear of death with a certainty that he is on a far higher plane of knowledge than everyone else. Instead, it validates all of them. The repeated refrain of the film is Boris's belief that as much as life sucks, sometimes you can grasp onto something that makes you happy for a bit - you'll die soon enough, but whatever works to make that less of a pressing concern, run with it. But neither he nor the movie he's in seems to honestly believe that, until the final scene; it's pretty clear that we're not supposed to fundamentally disagree with his assessment that Melodie is hopelessly stupid, that religious conservatives are the damnedest fools of all time, that smart people have the hardest time of all, and so on. If we find him a bit unlikable - and I'm certain that Allen intends for us to do so - it's not because his observations are unfair or inaccurate, but because he has the bad taste to insult people to their face repeatedly. It's exactly like the jerk in the line for the movie in Annie Hall running off the mouth about Fellini, being given his own feature film.

My problem isn't that the protagonist isn't likable, of course; nor even, really, that the film mostly agrees with him; my problem is that it just presents all of this as bland fact, and never tries to be very funny or clever. It's just a whining complaint for 92 minutes, a bitchfest for arrogant intellectuals. Allen has made plenty of movies that are very intellectually condescending, but they tend to be at least funny or entertaining. Whatever Works is just hard to watch. I don't like at all to say things like that about Woody Allen, a director and writer I hold in great enough esteem that despite his shaky batting average, I still await every one of his new films with baited breath. I can tell you right now, whatever he releases in 2010 will be one of my most anticipated films of that year. But not because his 2009 film is satisfying on any level.

Just about the only thing in the film that really clicks is the use of direct address throughout, as Boris repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and tells us what's going on - a trick seemingly cribbed from Annie Hall, although it's probably more accurate that Annie Hall cribbed from the original script for Whatever Works. It's a fine bit of meta-humor that starts and ends the film well enough that it doesn't leave you with a particularly bad taste, but there's just not that much of it. And like most Allen films, the jazz soundtrack is pretty well-placed, and thanks to of all random people Harris Savides, the film looks a lot better than Allen films tend to. But this is mostly tiny bits of goodness studded into a field of not-so-good.

It seems that Allen would like for us to receive the story as "a guy who thinks he knows everything and is a dick meets people who challenge him enough that he becomes a bit flexible"; the actual arc is "a guy who is a dick meets people who he decides are nice enough that he likes them even though he must at every moment establish his superiority over them, right up to the movie's final line." I'm not asking Woody Allen to suddenly come out of the closet as a humanist, or anything foolish like that, but leavening his acidic nihilism with anything might have been nice. I've probably made this film sound like I hated it more than anything ever, which isn't the case; though it's comfortably in the bottom third of his movies, Allen has done much worse and for the most part the film presents a credible narrative, even if the characters are all a bit too clichΓ©d according to the needs of the author's argument. But I want so badly for his films to all be great, and when one is as tired and mean as this, feeling like a parody of Woody Allen elements more than the genuine article... I get disappointed. All in all, it's a movie that plays fair by its own rules, but it's so hard to endure!

4/10