Tetro (15) and Whatever Works (12A)

Two directors prove they are well past their prime, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Tetro (15)
dir: Francis Ford Coppola

Whatever Works (12A)
dir: Woody Allen

The last time Francis Ford Coppola shot a film in black and white was in 1983. That was the woozy, likeable Rumble Fish, a kind of "My First Cocteau", which told the tale of two brothers - the young and impressionable Rusty James (Matt Dillon) and his idol, the enigmatic Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who you weren't supposed to notice was only a few "heyyys" away from being the Fonz.

Now Coppola returns to monochrome - and to brotherhood - in Tetro, which concerns the young and impressionable Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, the spit of a kiddie DiCaprio) and his idol, the enigmatic Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Big brother has rechristened himself "Tetro" after the family name, Tetrocini, and has become quite the tortured artist in the years since he walked out on his adoring half-sibling. When Bennie, now working on a cruise liner, drops by at Tetro's Buenos Aires apartment, he is welcomed by Miranda (Maribel Verdú) while Tetro hides away in a darkened room like a monster in the attic. When he finally emerges, it is with all the gracefulness of Godzilla going shopping in Tokyo: he bursts through the kit­chen doors on crutches, booting a chair across the room before lighting a cigarette and announcing: "I hate nice." I know what you must be thinking: Vincent Gallo playing surly and volatile? Where could Coppola have stumbled upon such an outlandish piece of casting?

Actually, I have a soft spot for Gallo. His sincerity stings (it's there, too, in his wonderful album of music, When). If he reaches too readily for the button marked "Intensity", then maybe he's compensating for the threadbare parts he gets. This frustrated writer Tetro, who clutches to his chest a raggedy manuscript - it's a play about his father, a celebrated but tyrannical conductor - asks nothing new of the actor. He's all gnashing teeth and switchblade eyes, with the modulation left to the other characters. Coppola has form in the matter of fraternal tensions, having brought to the screen the Godfather films' Michael and Fredo Corleone, who made Cain and Abel look like the Proclaimers. But there's a listlessness to the Tetro/Bennie relationship, despite efforts by the script to "twin" them (both men suffer broken legs in street accidents, and Bennie takes it upon himself to transcribe and finish Tetro's play, using a mirror to decipher the backwards writing).

Coppola's curiosity lies in other areas. He has ample affection for minor characters, such as the flamboyant troupe staging a female version of Faust and the all-powerful critic Alone (Carmen Maura), who add to the picture's mounting carnivalesque flavour. But tonally the film is a bit of a muddle, with Mihai Malaimare Jr's glistening cinematography providing the only continuity as Coppola crams in homages to Powell and Pressburger, Fellini (early and late period) and Almodóvar.

In the end, it all looks rather overdressed for a movie of such trivial incident. It's a doodle that thinks it's a fresco.

In 1989, Coppola contributed to the portmanteau film New York Stories, but his lacklustre offering ("Life Without Zoe") was easily outshone by its bedfellows, Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons" and Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks". Twenty-one years later, none of these film-makers is looking tip-top. But it is Allen whose stock has fallen furthest. Whatever Works, which reaches these shores a year after its US release and about three decades past its use-by date, reveals a film-maker out of touch with cinema, comedy, even human behaviour.

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a retired nuclear physicist who grudgingly takes in Mel­ody St Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a homeless young southern naïf who proves impervious to his sarcastic gibes. What a week of bolts from the blue. First Gallo plays prickly, then Allen makes a film about a May-to-December romance. In fact, David and Wood are rather jolly together, and not without a kinky chemistry. It's the makeshift analyses of desire, the bored sexual permutations (a prim mother turns susceptible bohemian, a repressed gent comes out), that kill the film. Allen also performs a seemingly impossible feat in leeching David of his comic pizzazz. It's no effort curbing your enthusiasm for this one.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.