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Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Streetcar Named Woody: A Review for "Whatever Works"

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What happens if Woody Allen takes Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and rewrites it?  It would be like turning the play upside down and tossing it like pizza and hurling it like a boomerang and watching it come back and hitting someone in the head just by chance, then having fun doing it.  That is exactly how I can describe Allen’s film “Whatever Works.”  It is classic Woody Allen without Dianne Keaton or Mia Farrow or him in it.  It is full of cynicism, intellectualism, misanthropy and romanticism all viewed in Allen impeccable sardonic but absurd comedic lens.

“Whatever Works” is Allen’s reworking of a classic morbid tale of lust, love and the brutality of life.  Audiences will still get to see Tennessee Williams’ characters: Blanche, Stella, Stanley, Mitch, and other minor assortments of characters from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” except all these characters are transported to New York, not New Orleans.  Blanche becomes Marietta brilliantly portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, who by the way owned every scene she graced.  Will somebody give this woman an Oscar? In Allen’s version, Blanche maintains her Southern charm but also he puts the spotlight on her brain and artistry.  In this version, Blanche is the stronger person compared to Stanley, the animosity is still there but she is more in control here and definitely not the victim.  Stanley Kowalski splits into two personas. The major one is Boris (Larry David), an aging suicidal intellectual misanthrope; the minor persona is Randy (Henry Cavill), who is a young handsome aspiring actor, the archetypal romantic man clad in twenty-first century clothes and his sexuality slowly oozes rather than violently rages.  However, you can also say that Boris is actually Woody Allen’s archetypical neurotic film persona invading a Tennessee William play, and spilling his banter on all of Williams’ creations.  Allen’s Stella is Melody, the Southern runaway girl, also wonderfully played by Evan Rachel Wood.  Mitch, who was characterized in the original play as an overweight ordinary working class man, also splits into two personas in Allen’s version.  The two Mitch become bohemian intellectuals, who nurture and appreciate Blanche’s womanhood, relish on her newly released suppressed sexuality and eccentric brilliance.  Instead of punishing her, the two Mitch love her and watch her bloom as an artist.  Blanche’s dead lover in the original play is also resurrected in Allen’s version with a delicious surprise.
The film works because it does not take its romp over intellectualism seriously, at the same time, it does not gag its audience with sappy romanticism. Allen maintains a precarious balance between being too artsy and being to sappy.  “Whatever Works” looks like a typical intelligent Allen film but it also has a feel of a romantic comedy in which everyone finds love. Some may not particularly like Allen’s dipping into two different pools, but its works.  In my opinion, “Annie Hall” is still the best and smartest romantic comedy ever. “Whatever Works” just reminds us that Allen may be the best romantic comedy director around because he does not lie to us about love. He tells the truth.
It has always been satisfying to listen to Allen’s banter on life.  Only Allen can convince me regarding the meaningless of my existence and then once he almost got me swayed, he turns around and makes me feel that falling in love and living life for the moment is equally as important as knowing that my physical being and this universe are hurling quickly into an inevitable pointless end.   Allen is famous for closing his movies with brilliant and witty lines.  In “Whatever Works,” he tells us, “Everybody’s desperate to have fun, trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave? That’s why I can’t say enough times. Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. But don’t kid yourself; it is by no means up to your human ingenuity, a bigger part of your existence is about luck than you like to admit.”
So, I think what Allen is saying is to go out and live, fall in love and get hurt, as long as you don’t hurt anybody. Whatever works, go for it. 
Woody Allen is my idea of the quintessential cynical romantic.  My love affair with Allen’s films started with “Annie Hall.” It was not, however, the first Allen film that I watched, that would be “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  That film also had a profound effect on me, but still, anybody who wants to be a serious Woody Allen aficionado should start with “Annie Hall.”  I think everything that you need to know about love is there.  It isn’t “Pretty Woman,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally,” or even “Jerry Maguire.”  “Annie Hall” talks about love in a more truthful way. To paraphrase New York Times critic A.O. Scott, “Annie Hall” is all about the fundamental imperfection of love. Yet despite its flaws, we still want it. 

Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allan and Diane Keaton

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