WOODY ‘WORKS’ MAGIC WITH NEW COMEDY

It doesn’t seem possible, but with ‘Whatever Works”which opened the Tribeca Film Festival last night’Woody Allen makes it two in a row.

That is, following ‘Vicki Cristina Barcelona,’ Woody has rendered a full on New York romantic comedy reminiscent of the best of this work from the 1980s. ‘Whatever Works’ is something of a comic masterpiece, full of trademark Allen raving and ranting but richer and fuller than any comedy he’s made since the days of ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ ‘Manhattan,’ and ‘Annie Hall.’

Of course, the big difference is that Woody isn’t in ‘Whatever Works.’ In his stead is TV genius Larry David, playing Boris, the least likeable curmudgeonly New Yorker to come along in films in years. Boris is a cranky physicist, almost nominated for a Nobel prize, and self-proclaimed ‘genius’ whose wife finally leaves him.

Into his isolated world comes a whirlwind, one of those beautifully conceived female characters Allen is so famous from stretching from Annie Hall through Tina in ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ to Aunt Bea in ‘Radio Days.’ Evan Rachel Wood is simply astonishing as Melodie, a runaway from the South who convinces Boris to let her stay with him. Not long after, her mother’in the person of the equally splendid Patricia Clarkson‘arrives, and spins off a second, fully conceived plot that fits seamlessly with the main story.

Like all of Allen’s great films, death figures strongly in the story. But then, so do waves of one liners, zingy jokes that are fresh baked and aimed at just about every sacred cow. There is also a strong literary and cultural undercurrent, with references running the gamut from Groucho Marx to William Faulkner. (Boris actually cruelly compares Melodie to ‘Benjy’ from ‘The Sound and the Fury.’). It’s maybe the first comedy ever to introduce the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty and relate it to attitudes during a menage a trois.

But make no mistake, ‘Whatever Works”while it ruminates around for big ideas and glorious insights’is still a comedy. It’s that unlike modern comedies, the laughs are drawn from the brilliantly conceived characters and not their situations. The central character, Boris Yellnikoff, is a germ freak hypochondriac who’s really a send up of Woody’s own trademark characters. What’s great about Boris is that he’s hyper-aware of his own demented personality. He gets it, all too well. Larry told me after the screening that the hardest part of making a Woody Allen film is “memorizing all that dialogue.” But he did it, including some huge (and funny) monologues.

What ‘Works’ is that Woody, for the first time in years, just lets go. For years he’s reined in his characters or second guessed them, resulting in a lot of mediocre films that could have been so much better. ‘Works’ reminded me of his best short stories and works of fiction, pieces that are not self-conscious. In this film, he just lets it all fall away, and so we get Boris unsuccessfully jumping out of windows, losing and finding love, and these little interwoven stories of other lives being reshaped when the characters resolve that in love, ‘whatever works’ is better than nothing working at all.

There were plenty of stars, too, at the premiere, and not just Robert DeNiro (who had gigantic and unfriendly bodyguards with him in the theater and at the private party later): Debra Messing, Cheryl Hines, Harvey Keitel., Charlie Rose, Melissa Leo, Micky Dolenz, Lance Reddick, Uma Thurman, Morgan Spurlock, and ‘ strangely’Mary Kate Olsen, looking very troll-ish.

‘Whatever Works’ doesn’t open until June 19th, but mark my words, the film has spawned the first Oscar nominees in Wood and Clarkson, with Woody sure to get screenplay and maybe even directing nods next winter. Don’t bet against this: Woody holds the record for actresses nominated for Oscars from his movies, and winners, too like Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz and, of course, Diane Keaton.

LIAM NEESON: PUBLIC GRIEF THERAPY

No one could really believe their eyes last Sunday night when Liam Neeson walked onto the red carpet at the Broadway premiere of ‘Mary Stuart.’

His “date” was Ralph Fiennes. Neeson posed for pictures on the carpet before entering the Broadhurst Theater. He and Fiennes, however, eschewed sitting in the orchestra section with other stars like Jeremy Irons, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Tyne Daly, Jessica Walter and Ron Liebman, Kevin Spacey (with the usual clutch of male admirers), and Marian Seldes.

Instead, the former ‘Schindler’s List’ stars preferred to sit in the balcony, away from the hubbub. Still they came to the Tavern on the Green after party. Neeson, whose wife Natasha Richardson died tragically one month ago, doesn’t look very happy. He doesn’t speak to people he doesn’t know, and keeps his head straight, refusing to respond even to friends’ entreaties. Most of the color is drawn from his face.

It’s Neeson’s way of moving on, although not the usual grief therapy. In the four weeks since Richardson’s death he’s been to St. Tropez, according to one report, and taken in a Knicks game and opening day at Yankee Stadium with his sons. They’ve also made a pilgrimage to London. But for Neeson this is probably the most normal way of living. Sitting at home in the dark is no solution. I’m impressed by the deferential way strangers are treating him.

One reason Neeson was at ‘Mary Stuart,’ I’m told, was to support actor John Benjamin Hickey, who was a close friend of Richardson. Many of Hickey’s other close friends were in the audience on opening night, too, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and John Slattery and Talia Balsam. Hickey, a real journeyman New York actor who’s paid his dues in full, is absolutely superb as the Earl of Leicester. He’s on his way to a Tony nomination, if not award. His friends are thrilled. They’ve waited a long time to see him make good. And what a nice tribute from Neeson, just being there.

VANITY FAIR COURTS TRIBECA STARS

Even though they cancelled their annual party in Cannes, Vanity Fair weathered on Tuesday night in drizzle with its annual gala for the Tribeca Film Festival.

Up the steps of the 82 year old Roman classical style New York State Supreme Court house in Foley Square came the likes of Bono (wearing eyeglasses bigger than anything Elton John tried in the 70s) with wife Ali, and a taciturn Kanye West ‘ mega pop stars, even though they have nothing to do with film, per se. Luckily, hot on their heels was a real film star, Robert DeNiro, with wife Grace Hightower, and their Tribeca Film Fest partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff.

If there weren’t more actual movie stars, there was no end of interesting people to talk to: Debra Messing was accepting congrats on her just announced new comedy on NBC, Ari Emanuel was trying not to answer questions about his Endeavor Agency’s imminent takeover of the esteemed William Morris Agency, Gayle King was chatting with ‘Push’ director Lee Daniels, and Tom Freston was palling around with cult comic and TV director David Steinberg.

Of course, the usual Conde Nast suspects and friends were helping the effusive Graydon Carter celebrate: Diane von Furstenberg, Andre Leon Talley, Anna Wintour, Lisa Robinson, Fran Lebowitz, Beth Kseniak, and so on. When they’re all together in one place they now resemble one of those Risko murals up in Carter’s Waverly Inn or Monkey Bar come to life.

All of this took place under the portico of the magnificent courthouse, which is usually lined with backed up queues of alleged criminals and their attorneys’if only marble columns could talk! (Police Commish Ray Kelly was there, and must have felt right at home.) Large neon signs flashed the Vanity Fair logo to the ghostly abandoned for the night Foley Square along with that of Panavision, the night’s sponsor, owned by Revlon’s Ronald Perelman.

And still the waves of the well known kept coming: Regis and Joy Philbin, Larry David, Harvey Keitel. Edie Falco, Griffin Dunne, Rosie Perez, Josh Lucas, restaurateur Drew Nieporent, painter Stephen Hannock (who talked hip replacement with Peggy Siegal), Chris Walken, John Turturro, top manager Johnnie Planco and wife Lois, Les Moonves and the newly pregnant Julie Chen, Salman Rushdie, Patty Smyth and John McEnroe.

They all mixed in with odd society types from the Upper East Side, a mixture of vaguely foreign accents and stretched face lifts. I did like it when Reinaldo Herrera, a sort of VF regular from Carnegie Hill, startled pretty Joy Philbin with a compliment: ‘You are the best thing on television!’ he cried. ‘I co-hosted with Regis last week,’ Joy explained to me quickly as Herrera swept past.

So that’s what the rich people do in the morning! Why not?

MCTEERS FOR FEARS

The talk of Broadway is Janet McTeer in ‘Mary Stuart,’ which is not a play about the late star of ‘Search for Tomorrow.’ It’s London’s Donmar Warehouse update of Frederick Schiller’s saga (written in 1800) of Queen Elizabeth I’s eventual beheading of her livelier turned Catholic cousin. Elizabeth is played by Harriet Walter, who’s no slouch either. Each of the actresses was nominated for Best Actress the other day by the Outer Critics Circle.

But what about Janet McTeer? The statuesque beauty burst into the American consciousness with the movie ‘Tumbleweeds’ in 1999. She received an Oscar nomination for her stunning performance in the mother-daughter road movie. She also won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a historic Broadway production of ‘A Doll’s House.’ In the late 90s, McTeer was poised to follow Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet right down the red carpet of fame and fortune.

As Mary Stuart she is breathtaking’certain to win another Tony. A decade later, she could have it all again. So what’s the problem? I asked her on Sunday night, when McTeer entered the ‘Mary Stuart’ after party at Tavern on the Green with, of course, no fanfare.

‘I just couldn’t take it,’ she told me, meaning the fame and maybe the fortune. ‘I had to go home.’ That’s it’which is fine, but too bad for us. She did go home after ‘Tumbleweeds,’ and returned to London theatre and TV.’ Maybe this time she’ll hire a publicist, stick around, get an American agent, meet Harvey Weinstein’not!’ We’ll just have to appreciate her while she’s here!

Author
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News. He writes for Parade magazine and has written for Details, Vogue, the New York Times, Post, and Daily News and many other publications. He is the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals.
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