Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David) is a cynical chess teacher and former Columbia professor in quantum mechanics. Divorced, he avoids human contact except for his friends (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks, Lyle Kanouse) and students, patronising everyone he meets for not matching him intellectually. He spends much of the film washing his hands, all the while singing the "Happy Birthday" song—an attempt to gauge the proper length of time for the process.
Boris comes home one night to find Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a simpleminded 21-year-old, lying on his doorstep. He reluctantly lets her in for a meal and soon she tells him her story. She turns out to be of a distinctly southern background, having been born to fundamentalist parents in Mississippi and ran away from them. She asks if she can stay the night, which Boris eventually allows, and she stays with him while she looks for a job. Melody develops a crush on Boris despite their age difference and their varying cultures and intelligence.
Melody finds a job as a dog walker while still living with Boris. Out on the job, she meets Perry Singleton (John Gallagher, Jr.) and they arrange a date. When she comes back home, she explains to Boris that she ultimately did not like Perry because he loved everything in the world too much. Boris realizes that he loves her and they get married.
After a year passes, her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) finds Melody, explaining that she and her husband John (Ed Begley, Jr.) thought Melody had been kidnapped. She goes on to tell her that John left her and sold their house after John lost money in the stock market. She meets Boris and is disappointed with him, so she tries to convince Melody to end her marriage. The three go for lunch at a restaurant and meet Boris' friend, Leo (Conleth Hill). As Marietta goes to use the restroom, Randy Lee James (Henry Cavill) inquires about Melody. Marietta slyly decides to recruit him to end Melody's marriage. Later that evening, Leo, who had taken an interest in Marietta, asks her over for dinner. They spend the evening together, and they both discover that she is a talented photographer and he even makes plans to contract her professionally.
Boris explains to the audience that the next few weeks, Marietta changed and started experimenting in artistic photography, exotic new habits, and having an open relationship with Leo and his business partner, Morgenstern (Olek Krupa). Marietta still hates Boris and continues to arrange for Melody to marry Randy. She takes her to an outdoor craft market and "accidentally" runs into Randy, who questions her about her marriage. Melody initially sees past Marietta's attempt and tells him that her marriage is fine. She warns her mother to stop her attempt at once, but Marietta keeps trying. Later shopping for clothes, Melody meets Randy in another planned encounter with her and gets her to admit that her relationship with Boris is not entirely satisfying. He invites her to the boat he lives on, and the two end up kissing and beginning an affair.
John arrives at Boris and Melody's home full of regret and hopes to get the family back together. They all go to Marietta's photography exhibit opening together, and he sees how his ex-wife has changed since she moved to New York. Distraught, he retreats to a bar, drinking away his misery. While there, he meets a recently divorced gay man named Howard (Christopher Evan Welch), and admits something that he has known most his adult life: that he is also gay.
Melody tells Boris she is in love with Randy. Boris is devastated by this and jumps out a window again, but this time lands on Helena (Jessica Hecht), breaking her arm and leg. As he visits her in the hospital, he asks her if there is anything he can do to make up with her, and Helena says she would like to go to dinner with Boris.
Finally, Boris hosts a New Year's Eve party, at which everyone is seen in their new relationships: Marietta with Leo and Morgenstern, John with Howard, Melody with Randy, and finally Boris with Helena. Melody and her parents had, each one separately, completely shed their former southern conservative mindsets and wholeheartedly adopted the liberal New York City way of life and values. (John tells that his former membership in the National Rifle Association had been but a sublimation of his repressed homosexuality.) They are now all the best of friends, and at midnight heralding a new year they kiss. Afterwards Boris is revealed to be the only one who is able to communicate with the audience, and explains directly to them that one has to find all the enjoyment he can, to find "whatever works".Larry David as Boris Yelnikoff
Samantha Bee as Chess Mother
Ed Begley, Jr. as John Celestine
Adam Brooks as Boris' Friend
Henry Cavill as Randy Lee James
Patricia Clarkson as Marietta Celestine
Jessica Hecht as Helena
Conleth Hill as Leo Brockman
Lyle Kanouse as Boris' Friend
Olek Krupa as Morgenstern
Carolyn McCormick as Jessica
Michael McKean as Joe
Christopher Evan Welch as Howard Cummings (né Kaminsky)
Evan Rachel Wood as Melody St. Ann Celestine
On February 2, 2009, Variety reported that Sony Pictures Classics had purchased U.S. distribution rights to Whatever Works. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, on April 22, 2009. Sony gave the film a limited US release, beginning June 19, 2009. Maple Pictures released the film in Canada theatrically, and on DVD in October 2009. The film had its UK release on June 25, 2010.
The film was shot in New York City, marking Allen's return to his native city after shooting four films in Europe. David was hesitant to take the role, pointing out to Allen that his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm was improvisation, but Allen encouraged him to take the role anyway.
Partly to counter assertions that the film is autobiographical, Allen has pointed out that the script was written in the early 1970s, with Zero Mostel in mind for Boris; it was shelved after the actor's death in 1977. Thirty years later, Allen revisited the script in an attempt to create a film before a potential threat of a Screen Actors Guild strike. According to Allen, the only significant changes to the script involved updating the topical references."Hello, I Must Be Going" - Groucho Marx and Cast
"Salty Bubble" - Tom Sharpsteen and His Orlandos
"Butterfly By" - Heinz Kiessling
"Honeymoon Swoon" - Werner Tautz
"If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)" - Jackie Gleason
Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven) in D Minor, Op. 125 - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Wedding March - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony No. 5 (Beethoven) in C Minor - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
"Desafinado" - Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd
"Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year" - Red Garland
"Menina Flor" - Charlie Byrd
Auld Lang Syne - Dick Hyman & His Orchestra
"Happy Birthday To You" - Larry David
The film received mixed or average reviews from critics. Based on 160 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes reported that 49% of critics gave the film positive notices, with an average score of 5.4/10. According to another review aggretator, Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 top reviews from mainstream critics, the film has an average score of 45%, based on 30 reviews.
Upon the film's US release, A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote:
Patricia Clarkson and Evan Rachel Wood, as a mother out of Tennessee Williams and a daughter out of The Dukes of Hazzard, bring not only feminine sparkle but also acting discipline to what feels, all too often, like a run-through of an unfinished play. The scenes, shot by the excellent Harris Savides, Gus Van Sant’s longtime director of photography, have a static, blocky feel. Their deliberate pacing and the decorous rhythms of the dialogue might charitably be described as classical, given the picture’s occasional evocation of a Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation from the 1930s. A less generous word might be sloppy, given the near-total absence of the kind of Lubitschean verve of which Mr. Allen, when he’s on his comic game, is capable. To be sure there is a measure of vigor in Larry David’s performance in the central role of existential kvetcher, a formerly eminent physicist named Boris Yelnikoff. Mr. David does a lot of shouting and some antic gesticulating, and even throws himself out a window. But frantic action is not the same as acting, and there is barely a moment in Whatever Works in which Mr. David rises even to the level of credible impersonation.