'Whatever Works' is warmed-over Woody

Woody Allen has aged into that grandpa you hate taking out to Cracker Barrel because you never know what might come out of that mouth. He's still got the occasional Oscar-worthy bit of wit in him. He can still land Penelope Cruz an Oscar for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." But the clunky and dated "Hollywood Endings" and "Scoops" come along so often that it's a relief when he doesn't embarrass himself.

"Whatever Works" is an Allen comedy that works about half the time and flutters along just above Allen's big recent missteps. Allen covers overly familiar ground -- the futility of love, the meaningless of existence, age-inappropriate love affairs, sophisticated New Yorkers vs. the "hicks" who fill the rest of America. But he does it with just enough novelty for his fans to indulge him one more time.

Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") is the surrogate Woody this time out, an egocentric alter ego. Boris, his character, is a sidewalk philosopher who holds court with his fellow academics (he used to teach physics), insults children during chess lessons and passes judgment on the "cretins" who surround him.

"I'm not a likable guy," he confesses. "This is not the feel-good movie of the year."

But Boris stops self-obsessing over his night terrors (his impending death has kept him up for years) long enough to help a runaway. Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) is like "a character out of Faulkner," Boris fumes, and that's the way young Wood plays her -- a drawling, naive, God-fearing yokel who doesn't pick up the sarcasm of her protector.

You get the feeling watching this stagy little comedy that Allen's experience of the American South is pretty much limited to reading Faulkner. There are still Melodies out there, losing their virginity at the church fish fry in Eden, Miss. You have to be as out of step with the culture as Boris (or Allen) to think that stereotype works in the golden age of Britney and Billy Bob.

"Whatever" is still an amiable amble of a movie, bringing Melodie's Jesus-loving mom (Patricia Clarkson) to New York, where she is promptly corrupted and becomes a hip photographer living in a ménage à trois. She is pursued to Sodom-on-the-Hudson by Melodie's dad, turned into the funniest character in the movie by Ed Begley Jr.

Through it all, Allen's advice to "filch a little joy" out of life wherever you find it comes out of David, who is far less at home repeating Allen's lines than his own. Still, every now and then, vintage Allen writing meets vintage David rant, and it all comes together.

"A black got into the White House; he still can't get a cab in New York!"

And those who listen for dirty-old-man rationalizations in Allen's character's monologues won't have far to look this time.

It's not all that, but it's not all that bad, either. "Whatever Works" isn't deep, but with Grandpa Woody, you accept the warmed over, the recycled, just relieved he hasn't made a spectacle of himself.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer