Monday, June 14, 2010

Whatever Works -- entertaining comedy, errant philosophy

Director: Woody Allen, 2009. (PG-13)

Woody Allen returns to his native New York for this latest comedy. He wrote it 30 years ago with Zero Mostel in mind for the central character. But when he died in 1977 Allen set his screen play aside for decades. He came back to it last year, now with Larry David in the role as Boris Yellnikoff.

Boris is clearly a substitute for Allen himself. Not only does he sound like Woody Allen, he even looks a little like the nerdy director, though taller. As the protagonist, he is the least empathetic one in recent years. Frequently talking directly to the camera, he says right at the start, "I'm not a like-able guy. Charm has never been a priority with me. And just so you know, this is not the feel good movie of the year." Though he does not change during the course of the film, those around him do and they create the arc for this story.

The first of these characters is Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, The Wrestler), a naive runaway from Mississippi, who confronts Boris on his apartment stairs one night. Needing somewhere to stay in the Big Apple, she sweet-talks her way into his apartment and ultimately into his heart. As she has him acting as tour guide for her, seeing places in New York he has not visited in years, he molds her to his viewpoint. Despite his cruel and cutting, always condescending, remarks to her, she comes to love him.

Another two characters add to the mix. Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent), Melody's southern belle mama, comes looking for her, suitcases in hand. Finding her married to a man older than her own husband she is shocked. Her sheltered southern marriage has not prepared her for this, or for New York, at least Woody Allen's New York. Soon enough, though, she has become enlightened, her life changed, her philosophy radically altered. Gone is her Bible-believing Christian faith. In its place is a secular and sexual humanism that literally transforms her into an almost unrecognizable version of her former self.

Like Marietta, John (Ed Begley Jr.), Melody's church-going father, arrives on Boris' doorstep searching for his long-lost daughter. But he knows his sin and, though praying for forgiveness, cannot find it in God. Instead, he finds his redemption, like his wife, through the sexual awakenings of the New York City lifestyles.

Allen instills plenty of hilarious one-liners ("Was your mother a woman?", "Let's face it, our marriage hasn't been a garden of roses. Botanically speaking, you are more of a Venus Flytrap.") He draws good performances out of the main characters, but none resonate with us. And Boris is so cruel, especially with his young chess students, that we sometimes wish his suicide attempts had been successful.

Like all his films, Allen uses comedy as a way to smoothly convey his philosophy of life: a pessimistic skepticism that chokes the joy out of life. His anti-religion ideology is mentioned within the first minute, as Boris declares, "There's big money in the God racket." This is true. There are charlatans and frauds in all walks of life, and Christianity is no exception. There are a number of preachers who want us to show our faith by sending large sums of money to their ministries. And they show the trappings of these blessings. But one bad apple does not always spoil the whole barrel. For most, Christianity is a God-relationship, not a God-racket. And most ministers experience big blessing but not big money.

In the first scene Boris' interaction with his two drinking buddies gives us Allen's feelings on Jesus and life: "The basic teachings of Jesus are quite wonderful. . . . They all suffer from one fatal flaw. They are all based on the fallacious notion that people are fundamentally decent. . . . That they're not stupid, selfish, greedy, cowardly short-sighted worms.. . . . People make life so much worse than it has to be. Believe me, it's a nightmare without their help." As is often the case, truth is distorted or denied.

Allen's view on the wonderful teachings of Jesus ("Do to others what you would have them do unto you," Matt. 7:12) completely misses the core teachings of Jesus -- the brokenness of humanity and the redemption found in his gospel. We are not fundamentally decent. Jesus never said that. Rather, he and his apostles pointed out the depravity inherent in human nature (Rom. 3:10). We are actually like Boris describes us: selfish, greedy, cowardly. Church theologians such as Calvin and Wesley echoed this belief, and it has become known as "worm theology" from a line in Isaac Watts hymn "Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed": "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?"

Moreover, Allen sees life as meaningless: "What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nothing comes to anything." To him life lacks purpose. That's why suicide is an attractive option. When troubles appear or life becomes overwhelming, drop out permanently. But if there is a God, then there is a purpose to this existence. Since God does exist, he has created us to find meaning in him (Eph. 1:11). We can experience him and enjoy a relationship with our creator (Psa. 34:8). Despite troubles, life does have purpose. Allen's view is fundamentally wrong.

Of course, with such a pessimistic approach, Boris (and Allen) offer the only advce that makes sense: "That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works." Here is the grand theme of the film. And there is a measure of truth buried here. We should be looking for grace and love in whatever measure as we journey through life. But with the reality of purpose and the truths of Jesus, we know where to look. God offers us grace and love. We can experience these daily (Lam. 3:22-23).

However, it is not correct to look for whatever works. If it works does not make it right. Surveying the holiday celebrations in Boris' apartment in the concluding scene, we find all the key characters in their new-found relationships, each with a measure of love. For them, whatever works. But none of them have found depth of relationships. Theirs are superficial and distorted relationships that many would find immoral. Like Woody Allen's marriage with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow, these relationships are contrary to nature and decried in Scripture.

Whatever Works works as a comedy, but fails as philosophy. As followers of Jesus, our lives are not governed by whatever works, but by whatever glorifies God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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