Cinematic Shrugs: Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" and Harold Ramis' "Year One"

Daniel Kasman

Above: "Let me explain the world to you," — the directorial attidue of Woody Allen's terrific Whatever Works.

Suddenly I think I may have misjudged Woody Allen.  Around the time of Scoop disturbing suspicions were elicited about the filmmaker simply losing the craft of film, not knowing how to block a scene, compose a shot, edit things together—the basics.  Subsequent movies seemed to confirm the suspicion.  But consecutive viewings of Harold Ramis’ Year One and Allen’s latest film, Whatever Works, prompt a different consideration: maybe these guys just don’t care.  This isn’t a complaint about them; it is the acknowledgement of an attitude.  Whatever Works is one of the most transparent movies I’ve ever seen, it wears its dialog, its actors, its filmmaking, its New York on its sleeve; nearly like a Luc Moullet film, Allen is practicing frontality: everything is so clearly directed at us, presented for us, we cannot ignore it.  That is, perhaps, where complaints about filmmaking practice may spawn from—we can see everything Allen’s giving us—but this time around I got into it: it is much easier to live with a movie that doesn’t care than one that does.  In this context, “naturalism” suddenly means something else entirely.  When we see how awkwardly minimalist Allen's staging of Larry David’s first attempt at suicide in Whatever Works is—first, preceded by a long scene of David 85% blocked from our view because the camera is framing him standing behind a bar counter, then a close-up of the awkward, startled face of David’s wife as we hear an off-camera sound of David jumping out a window—we must sense a rare kind zen acceptance in the cinema.

Year One exhibits similar tendencies, though less successfully.  One realizes the fruitlessness of complaining about a lack of pacing or flat direction, and instead becomes absorbed in how obvious it is when Jack Black falters in his shtick—because then Ramis cuts to Michael Cera, who inevitably saves the moment with some fumbling, mumbling sweetness.  I see and understand it all seems to be the spectator attitude of these movies, which is obviously what so easily would prompt complaints about their deficiencies.  But cinema—like anything else, but especially cinema—is all a matter of perspective.  One must admire these films for their lack of subtlety, which suddenly seems less a byproduct of bad direction than a conscious decision to lay bare.

Ramis’ film, a bit more conceptual with its Christ-era setting, Old Testament references, and paltry Biblical production values, doesn’t give up in exactly the same way as Allen’s film, which has Larry David’s misanthropic “genius” marry a teenage runaway.  Specifically, no film with Jack Black in it can give up all the way, and one feels like it is Black’s nascent energy and momentum that takes Year One down the path of conventionality, magnetically attracting the paltry falseness of messages and romance, both out of place with this tone.  In the Allen film, which is significantly better, New York is paraded like a location default (the same could be said of Year One’s banal deserts, but at least Whatever Works has some color), all the scenes set in David’s Chinatown apartment feel like those recent stage adaptations of Alain Resnais, all stuffy, artificial, and obvious, and any escape to the outside world feel like rehearsals for funnier scenes that don’t rely quite so much on hoary caricatures and are better composed.  But why cloak your film in rich characterization or pictorial beauty when it can just exist naked—why not make a movie with a half-formed imagination and a yell to roll ‘em?

“So what?”—these movies ask.  “Here we are;” deal with it or don’t.  It’s like one big cinematic shrug, aware that they are providing pleasure for some but not most, and are probably pleasing their makers more than their viewers.  “Egotism!” some might cry if these were other filmmakers, if they weren’t making schlumpy comedies, if their affection—slightly warped, it is clear—for the material wasn’t so apparent, if their movies smacked of ambition or pretension.  Maybe it’s coming back from the bloated behemoth of Cannes and being exhausted by the self-important, the conceptual, the stylish, the packaged, and finding a naturally irrational pleasure in movies that showcase their inadequacies, their obsessions, their minor talents and great flaws front and center.  Let’s admire, for a moment, frankness, and these movies—especially Whatever Works—are nothing if not frank.  Frankly inconsequential, which is why they are so fun.

(As a side note, Harris Savides is Allen’s latest attempt at finding a cinemagrapher to inspire him as Gordon Willis and Carlo Di Palma once did.  Suffice to say there are two shots in Whatever Works—of a steadicam following a limping Larry David through the shadows, poetic and hilarious—that may suggest the greatness of recent Gus Van Sant is due to Savides.)

Above: Yup, this is it.  The movie, I mean.  Year One.

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