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Meshugamorphosis

Woody Allen and Larry David meld into one superneurotic in “Whatever Works.”

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Larry David seems so perfect for a lead role in a Woody Allen movie, mostly because the character for which he's best known, himself, seems like a character Woody Allen could have created. The curious thing is that the Larry David version and the Woody Allen version are easier to tell apart now that the two have fused into one ranting psychotic for Allen's new comedy, “Whatever Works.”

One difference is obvious. As suggested by his character's name, Boris Yellnikoff, David's is a much louder, angrier neurosis. There's a side threatened by health concerns — Boris battles with hypochondria — but most of the time he's venting, not worrying, usually about how stupid everything and everyone is besides Boris. “This is not the feel-good movie of the year,” he says into the camera to the audience.

It's not far off, though. “Whatever Works” is sort of like “Manhattan” without the feelings. Boris lives in a cramped apartment in downtown Manhattan where he moved after jumping out of a window at his uptown loft to get out of a marriage. Aside from teaching chess to children he calls morons, his regimen includes card games and complaining. Into his world stumbles Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a young girl new to the city, with a positive attitude Boris attributes to her primitive Southern brain.

After a somewhat bumpy beginning, Allen finds his rhythm with Boris, a character he reputedly first created in the '70s with Zero Mostel in mind. It's never subtle, but the humor wrought from Boris' charmless persona grows with repetition and pays off even bigger when Melody's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) find her with the bathrobe-clad obsessive and see what he's done to her. Then he, or the city he embodies, does it to them too, and “Whatever Works” even reaches for a bit of significance to go with the laughs.

“Whatever Works” marks a return to the Big Apple for Allen, but it's not, alas, another perfect blend of wit and wisdom the director offered so frequently during his fertile beginning in the late '70s. Characters win and lose but the movie lacks bite and poignancy. A happy but limp ending suggests Allen is an artist who still enjoys creating characters even if he doesn't care what happens to them anymore. “Whatever Works” might be a fine philosophy for Boris Yellnikoff, but not for his movie. (PG-13) 92 min. HHHII  S

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