Perhaps it is a folly, but I see in this film quite a bit more than what seemed to have met the eyes of most of the reviewers. It has been labeled everything from a complete miss to a somewhat Allenesque gag fest. If that is so, why did I and my perceptive spouse sense a tragic undercurrent pervading the substructure of the movie? Perhaps I should have said follie a deux, but follie is the wrong word. May I suggest awareness, sensitivity, or insight? While these self flattering words may appear to have come directly from the lead character of the movie, we do feel, after reading the reviews, very much like Boris Yelnikov hearing the babblings of the southern ingenue who takes refuge in his home.
Normally a movie character directly addressing the audience is a put-off which breaks the trance, but let us remember that it can enhance the theme (i.e. The Stage Manager of “Our Town”). In this case, Boris faces us (“the audience”) at the onset of the film and spews forth a torrent of nihilism. Why this diversion? The movie could have simply evolved one scene after the next to its conclusion as is the traditional format. Allen wants to connect to us. It’s a desperate move.” Listen to my story of this nihilistic man” he cries and then implies “and perhaps his tale of redemption”.
The film then launches into a classic comedic “menage a tout le monde”. The ingenue falls for Boris who seems to mellow or so he tells us, again facing the “audience”. The ingenue’s mother evolves from a fundamentalist Christian into a libertine artiste while succeeding in luring her daughter away from Boris into more conventional arms, Boris accepts the loss while musing on the incompatibility of superior intellects with just about everyone else, and of course we have the de rigueur “liberating” switch from hetero to gay by the formerly brutish husband of the ingenue’s mother. The dialogue is clever, funny and animated and the direction is lively as is true of most of the Allen genre.
Let me digress for a bit. It has been stated that Zero Mostel was supposed to have taken the central role. Mr. Mostel has been dead for a long time. So if Mr. Allen conceived this script at the time Mr. Mostel was alive, he had more than a bubbly comedy in mind. Mr. Mostel was an actor of great tragic proportions. In Mr. Allen film, “The Front”, Mr. Mostel threw himself out of a hotel window and of course Mostel was the unforgettable star of Ioneso’s “Rhinoceros”, a tragic figure indeed.
Back to “Whatever works”. In fact nothing works for the people in this film, especially Boris. They are all desperate to change into something, anything but their present selves. Boris tries to force himself out of his Kierkegaard blackness, into a state of fatalism, the ingenue who had jumped into a lifeboat (“see, I’m happily married”, showing her wedding ring) now takes her mother’s advice. In the final ensemble scene which occurs on New Year’s Eve, the newly configured couples merrily count down to the end of the old and the beginning of something else, anything else. A sense of unease pierces the gaiety. As the Time Square ball drops I almost expected a sudden tragic act. Whatever works? Allen says nothing works.