Another year and, regular as clockwork, here comes another Woody Allen movie about an older man falling in love with a much younger woman. For the past two decades, it has felt like the notoriously neurotic New Yorker has been trying to justify his controversial private life on screen with a series of thinly veiled autobiographical comedies. And yet, according to the 74-year-old director himself, there is no case to answer as nothing in his work relates to the real Woody. Yeah, right.
Let's be clear. Whatever Works may be Allen's first film on his beloved home turf of Manhattan for half a decade, but it is not the grand return to form that long-term fans, such as myself, forever dream is just around the corner. However, it is notable and enjoyable for several reasons. Firstly, the veteran writer-director scored a coup by casting the Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David in the now familiar "Woody Allen role" as a middle-aged Grinch at odds with the modern world.Also, Allen originally wrote this screenplay during his late 1970s golden period, intending to cast the late Zero Mostel. He has barely changed a word, merely adding a few contemporary references, including one to Barack Obama. Woodyphiles who perennially hanker for a return to his "early, funny" films - to quote a stand-out line from Allen's own self-lacerating satire Stardust Memories - should be salivating. In theory this is vintage Chateau Woody, straight from the vaults.
The set-up is certainly classic Allen, with all the familiar flaws and fallbacks that entails. David plays Boris Yelnikoff, a divorced college professor living in reduced circumstances in lower Manhattan. A crotchety hypochondriac with a history of depression, Boris feels little but aloof disdain for 99 per cent of the human race. Even a chance meeting with Evan Rachel Wood's dim-witted teenage runaway Melody, homeless and alone in the big city, has little effect on his Scrooge-like sneering.
All the same, Boris grudgingly allows Melody to share his apartment, inevitably leading to romantic sparks between this oddest of couples. Given their four-decade age difference, her youthful innocence and his cranky narcissism, friends and family soon express strong opposition. Everything unravels in the second half, but Allen sweetens the bitter pill with an uncharacteristically generous finale that suggests love can overcome all barriers of age, intellect and social class.
A decade younger than Allen, David brings both a warmth and an anger to this role that the director has not shown on screen in years. The rest of the characters are mostly thin stereotypes, from Wood's witless Southern belle to Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr as her uptight, repressed, conservative parents. The script is woefully clunky in places, and the cheery denouement far too neat. But Whatever Works still delivers a sunny, subversive and surprisingly un-Woody message about the need to squeeze every last drop of joy from life. Hardly a guarantee of greatness, but you will leave the cinema feeling amused and uplifted. At this stage in Allen's patchy autumnal career, that's good enough.