But it's a hat that fits Allen's new protagonist handily. David is Boris Yellnikoff, a brilliant (or so he says) physicist, divorced from his wife, no longer teaching at Columbia, and making a paltry living tutoring chess to pipsqueaks (and berating them mercilessly). He walks with a limp - souvenir of a failed suicide - and lives in a walk-up on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
In fact, here's something new for Allen: Returning to hometown New York after exploring England and Spain in his latest films, he's tumbled on virgin territory - Chinatown duck shops, cheap Italian cafes, East Village flea markets. Boris even has a line about how he once lived in the tony Beekman Place neighborhood. This is an altogether funkier, more diverse, colorful view of the city. It's as if, having discovered the urban pleasures of London and Barcelona, Allen is seeing Manhattan with fresh eyes.
So, the tale? It, too, takes off from familiar precincts: A much younger woman - a kid, really - enters the picture, befriending and beguiling the much older man. Melodie St. Ann Celestine is her name, a baton-twirling runaway from the Deep South who shows up on Boris' block. She's broke, she's alone, she's a cultural ignoramus - so, of course, Boris takes her in.
"Imbecile child, brainless inchworm," he grumbles at her, telling his buddies that even a Pygmalion makeover wouldn't work on this Mississippi Eliza Doolittle. (She's like "a character out of Faulkner, not unlike Benji," Boris snarks.) Evan Rachel Wood displays delightful comic chops as Melodie - walking that fine line between dumb blond parody and an authentic bumpkin with keen instincts and a good heart. Wood's not quite as screwball as Judy Holliday's Billie in Born Yesterday, but the two are kindred spirits.
Speaking of screwball, though, midway through Whatever Works Patricia Clarkson walks through the door - like a star making her big entrance in a Broadway play - and just about steals things out from under David, Wood, everyone. Clarkson is Melodie's mother, Marietta, come in search of her child. A Southern-fried fundamentalist, Marietta undergoes a radical transformation as she sets about exploring New York, taking in the interesting galleries and boites - and the interesting men, Boris' bohemian chums.
It's to David's credit that Whatever Works bops along with such energy. The actor brings a sort of barbarous glee to the proceedings that Allen - when he casts himself as the lead, deploying those habitual stammering rhythms - could not muster.
And Allen and David do stuff in Whatever Works that shouldn't work but does: Boris turns to the camera and addresses us, the audience, breaking that fourth wall with cynical commentary, snide asides and insults, even. The players on screen catch Boris as he's talking to some imaginary throng and wonder what the heck is going on.
They're still in the reality of the Whatever Works world, the whimsical reality of a successful Woody Allen enterprise.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.