A Film about Noticing Life’s Small Graces: Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” (2009), Starring Larry David, is a Funny and Profound Meditation on Existence

Woody Allen’s movie, Whatever Works, offered up in the fall of 2009, sassed and summarily dismissed by critics, and quickly sent by SONY to DVD, was seen at home by my wife and I last night.

We loved it. And laughed throughout. And were delighted at the heartwarming ending. And once the kids were in bed, we started watching it again. At breakfast my wife said that the movie even gave her dreams, and she turned it on this morning to start watching parts of it yet one more time. Oh, and philosophically the take home message of the film is existentially serious and interesting. 

Now, granted, we’re both Woody Allen and Larry David fans, and if you’re tepid on either of them the film probably won’t work for you (because then you’ll see the over-the-top acting and improbabilities in the story as indulgences). But if you watch the film as a contemporary Satyricon—a send-up, a vaudeville—and go with it on that level (as Allen no doubt intended) then the film works splendidly. Allen has dusted off a thirty year old script to make this film, and cast David in the role that Allen would have played a few decades previous. David plays that role, not just as an exaggerated version of Allen himself, but as an exaggerated version of David’s own signature Curb Your Enthusiasm character as well. Throw in hints of Don Rickles and you get a sense of how David played the role.

But there’s also a serious side to this film that reviewers, rushing to pan David’s acting and Allen’s script devices (David, for example, jumps out of multi-storied windows twice  and does not die from either fall), seem not to have been interested in talking about. That serious side is its meditation on contingency and suffering, and how one responds to it. These themes are hinted at in the title (Whatever Works), but deserve fleshing out.

In Whatever Works, the exaggerated Satyricon parodying of our ridiculous responses to life is the sugar that is helping medicine go down. Allen is dealing with painful truths, and so that we do not weep, he distracts us with absurdity and silliness. Here’s the take-home message of the film (and what gives it its driving structure): We are subject to the relentless furnace of this world, and there is no exit from our lives or the people we chance to crash into. What we do is doomed to failure by the wreckage of time and chance, and our plans come to naught. Oh, and there is no discernable redemption. None. But there is this: grace. That’s right. Grace. But not Big Grace. We’re talking small grace, or rather, small graces. The small graces arrive unexpected, and come to us as forms of truth, love, and beauty. These are the contingent moments that you must be attentive to (else you miss them).

In other words, like John Keats’s famous lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, in which Keats says that, in life, we should not “follow the money” but “follow the beauty” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), so Allen suggests that our existential recourse is not in escape—in some Big Redemption—but in “whatever works”—the small graces of life. And small graces are the charm of this movie, and the wisdom driving the movie. They are “whatever works.” 

Of course, this is existentialism mixed with pragmatism. And so beneath the buffoonery of this movie is a lifetime of wisdom. My wife and I will be watching this movie again. And again. It’s strangely cathartic in the way that a Marx Brothers film is strangely cathartic. That’s what Allen, a Marx Brothers fan, was almost certainly shooting for, and if you absent yourself of some ironic distance, and go with it, you actually find yourself caught in a wonderful, and philosophically and emotionally challenging, movie.

My wife’s favorite line is this one (delivered by Larry David in response to a suggestion that he go back on his meds): “I won’t have my mind befuddled by goddamn chemicals when I’m the only one who sees the whole picture for exactly what it is!”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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