Boris Yelnikoff is a self-described “Nobel-level thinker” who feels beseiged by “microbes,” one of his many terms for people who don’t see “the big picture.” And, what’s the big picture? He tells us in the first five minutes of Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Whatever Works,” when he says, “On the whole, I’m sorry to say, we’re a failed species.”
Yelnikoff, played by Larry David, is an aging former Columbia University physics professor who has divorced his wife, moved to a dingy (but affordable) New York apartment, and taken up teaching chess to children to support himself. While the movie doesn’t explicitly tackle the many converging catastrophes of the 21st century–there is exactly one mention of global warming–it does provide a catharsis for one’s doomerish side as we laugh at Yelnikoff’s misanthropic pessimism and his general ability to be a killjoy. We even get a treatment of the concept of entropy that elicits laughs. Now that’s a true doomer’s delight!
The failed species remark indicates promise that the movie will provide laughs for doomers. This is confirmed in what is really an opening monologue in which Yelnikoff warns the audience as follows:
I’m not a likeable guy. Charm has never been a priority with me. And just so you know, this is not the feel-good movie of the year. So if you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage….What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch.
That such a character could be the basis for a comedy is a testament to the genius of Allen. That this character could be the conduit for catharsis for the peak oil- and climate change-obsessed is a minor blessing. Yelnikoff tells us in the opening monologue that the daily news is enough to drive one to suicide as it did his father:
My father committed suicide because the morning newspapers depressed him. And could you blame him? With the horror and corruption and ignorance and poverty and genocide and AlDS and global warming and terrorism…”The horror,” Kurtz said at the end of Heart of Darkness. “The horror.” Lucky Kurtz didn’t have the Times delivered in the jungle, then he’d see some horror. But what do you do? You read about some massacre in Darfur or some school bus gets blown up, and you go, “Oh, my God, the horror!” And then you turn the page and finish your eggs from free-range chickens.
Yelnikoff also demonstrates frustration you can believe in. How many times a day (or times a minute if you are watching any cable newscast) do the peak oil- and climate change-obsessed among us want to yell out, “You idiot, you moron, you imbecile!” Most of us are too polite to say it, so Yelnikoff says it for us (for various doomer- and non-doomer-related reasons) over and over again.
The continuing spark for the comedy in “Whatever Works” comes from Yelnikoff’s liaison with a young, beautiful runaway from Mississippi. Desperate for food and shelter she accosts him in front of his apartment one evening and convinces him to let her in. She ends up staying, and eventually (spoiler alert), they marry. It doesn’t last. But Yelnikoff is resigned in the proper entropic way: “The universe is winding down. Why shouldn’t we?”
In the end, however, as is appropriate for a comedy, love conquers all, and the main characters land in fulfilling, if not necessarily traditional, love relationships. The film also examines the role of chance in life, an issue discussed frequently on this blog in both the financial and natural worlds. The film’s focus, of course, is on chance in our love lives.
The movie never seems to have gained wide release, probably in part because it takes so many jabs at gun advocates and Christian fundamentalists–two of the main characters are fundamentalists from the South–and probably because of its relentlessly doomerish main character.
I recommend more than one viewing to get the full cathartic effects, and also because you won’t catch all the jokes the first time through. If you are among the peak oil- or climate change-obsessed, how can you resist a film that uses Heisenberg’s Uncertainy Principle and the fate of the ancient Mayans as setups for jokes?