Woody Allen has returned to New York, but does New York want him back? For the excruciating “Whatever Works,” his first Gotham-set movie since 2004’s “Melinda and Melinda,” Allen dusted off a script written around the time of “Annie Hall,” intended as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, who died a few months after that film was released in 1977. The replacement mouthpiece for Allen’s borscht-y misanthropy is Larry David, who, playing Boris Yellnikoff, frequently breaks the fourth wall, to hector, lecture and obsess. “This is not a feel-good movie,” Boris, addressing the camera, pontificates at the outset. Rather, it is a numbing movie, filled with creaky, wheezy shtick about sex, politics, religion and the city that even the Catskill comics in “Broadway Danny Rose” would have a hard time cracking a smile at.
Boris, who once tried to kill himself during an argument with his psychotherapist wife by throwing himself out of their Beekman Place apartment, now limps along in Lower East Side digs, having given up his spouse and a career as a professor of quantum mechanics at Columbia to verbally abuse kids while teaching them chess. A leggy Mississippi runaway, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), begs the curmudgeon to spend a night on his couch; cheerily enduring Boris’ insults and screeds on Fred Astaire films (catnip to all women in Allen’s version of Mars-Venus relations), she soon becomes his bride.
Boris, like David’s character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is exaggerated for affect; both are unbearable narcissists always convinced of their own superiority. But whereas David’s HBO persona frequently gets his comeuppance, whether from one of Susie Essman’s epic cuss-filled blue streaks or Wanda Sykes’ withering glares, the voluble Boris remains unchecked, his cynical, tiresome rants to both the characters and the audience presented as the truth, or at least Allen’s lazy version of it. “I’m the only one who sees the whole picture. That’s what they mean by genius,” Boris says to the audience in the final scene, amidst happily paired-off couples who have no intention of correcting him.
A quieter expounding on the big picture is heard in Tatia Rosenthal’s feature debut, the stop-motion animation “$9.99”. Rosenthal, co-writing with Etgar Keret, on whose short stories the film is based (a novella of Keret’s was the basis for 2006’s inventive “Wristcutters: A Love Story”; he also co-directed 2007’s “Jellyfish”), concocts a Sydney-set, adult-themed “Davey and Goliath.” Dave Peck (voiced by Samuel Johnson), an unemployed 28-year-old gourmand living at home with his beleaguered dad (Anthony LaPaglia), spends the titular amount for a mail-order-only book on the meaning of life. The earnest premise extends to Dave’s neighbors in his apartment complex: a hospitable retiree visited by a potty-mouthed guardian angel, a squabbling young couple, a magician in the red, a little boy deeply attached to his piggy bank, and a supermodel, for whom Dave’s besotted brother, Lenny, makes bizarre sacrifices.
Like most films about the criss-crossing pursuit of happiness, “$9.99” plays as a pseudo-profound palliative, engaging in naïve bafflement about everyday struggles and heartaches. Though Rosenthal’s animated characters are pleasingly influenced by Lucian Freud’s portraiture — a grim, sometimes macabre look that can cut through the more cloying aspects of the film — the tepid humanism of the project offers only the revelation that, yes, everybody hurts.