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Allen A Day's Work: Woody comes back to form with Whatever Works 

Or we could shoot hoops?Woody Allen's filmmaking career has been like one long, good conversation. He knows that sometimes he's been talking to himself, with

Or we could shoot hoops?Woody Allen's filmmaking career has been like one long, good conversation. He knows that sometimes he's been talking to himself, with the audience acting as psychiatrist, nodding and saying, "I see" in the right places. But Whatever Works is Woody's second wind-after losing track of the conversation to stumble about woozily, searching for the right bases; he's returned to form with a very funny, very smart farce-like comedy that beats out Annie Hall for quotable witticisms.

His last film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is brilliant but our enthusiasm was wary, as we'd waited patiently asking of each six-monthly release, "Is this the one to get excited about?" The assumption was that he'd lost it, and so even though his most mediocre effort can be ten times better than most of what makes it onto the big screen, fun films like Anything Else got ignored. After seeing Whatever Works, you'll want to rent Vicky Cristina Barcelona, to watch it through without holding your breath.

Filmmaking is Woody Allen's way of life, and the day he wraps one film he begins to pull together the next and as he travels from country to country. Whatever Works is as much about his place in Hollywood as it is about our place in the universe. While critics complain scripts restrict his actors, to merely impersonating Allen. This time around he cast Larry David for the central character, Boris Yellnikoff - a natural fit given that David's HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm is the illegitimate child of Allen's comedy stand-up.

At the outset, Boris addresses the camera, berating the audience for buying tickets "so someone in Hollywood can have a bigger swimming pool." Boris then guides us through the sort of film a Woody Allen audience wants to see, a film so easy-going and effortless it's hard to understand why he ever tries to do anything else-like a London-based murder mystery or anything with Ewan McGregor.

In Manhattan, another Allen film about, as this is, an older, neurotic man falling for a young, earnest girl, Allen's character Isaac says to Diane Keaton's Mary, "You seem to know a lot of geniuses, you should try meeting some stupid people sometimes, you might learn something." This is where Whatever Works picks up the conversation, as the guileless Southern belle Melodie, played by a creamy, dreamy Evan Rachel Wood moves in with the cantankerous, Nobel-Prize-nominated, self confessed genius Boris - who Larry David pitches as Allen-ish, but with a Seinfeld-esque self righteousness that's all his own.

As Melodie grows to accept Boris' relentless realism, he marries her. Then, like a Noel Coward play, through the front door comes her Baptist Republican mother, played with relish by Patricia Clarkson, followed by her equally ultra-religious father. These stupid people, or "inchworms" or "zombies" as Boris calls them, are transformed by the big city in ever-increasingly hilarious ways. It's a modern, multi-narrative Pygmalion full of surprises that shouldn't be spoiled.

Woody Allen lives out the film's moral, that life is hard and we should grasp at any and all happiness we can find, by endlessly doing what he loves, making movies. The only disappointment here is that in his rush to start on another film, he wraps them up hurriedly. It is our turn to speak too soon, when we'd rather listen to him.

Whatever Works ★★★★✩
Written and directed by Woody Allen; Starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr. Rated PG-13

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