The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Woody Allen and Larry David: Two Jews blues

May 26, 2009 |  6:27 pm


If Woody Allen's new film "Whatever Works" feels a little dated -- and I don't mean that pejoratively, just in the sense that all Woody Allen movies seem to hark back to an earlier era, where swing music is on the radio and no one would dream of communicating via text message -- it's not by accident. One of the most intriguing tidbits Mark Harris uncovered in his absorbing new portrait of Allen (and "Works" costar Larry David) in the new issue of New York magazine is that the "Whatever Works" script was originally written in the 1970s, so long-long-ago that Allen had envisioned the David part being played by ... Zero Mostel. (Mostel died in 1977, the year "Annie Hall" was released, so this indeed is vintage Allen.)

But with an actors strike looming last year, Allen couldn't stick to his customary film-in-the-summer-when-his-kids-are-out-of-school routine. So he grabbed an old script from the drawer and persuaded  David to play Boris Yellnikoff, a curmudgeonly physicist who falls for a much younger woman, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who being 21 and Larry David being 61, would qualify as a much, much younger woman, even by Allen standards. Harris describes Yellnikoff as "a cranky, forlorn, impatient New York Jew of a certain age." As for the film itself -- due out June 19 in New York and Los Angeles -- he seems to gently pull a punch, describing it as "a Larry David movie that doesn't quite feel like a Larry David movie and a new Woody Allen movie that isn't really new."

What makes the piece worth reading is that instead of driving down easy street like most magazine writers do these days, Harris steers clear of a softball gabfest with the two famous comics. Instead he deftly turns the profile into an extended, thoughtful examination of the notion of Allen and David as contrasting examples of classic Jewish humor -- "emperors of adjoining comedy galaxies finally colliding," to use his lovely phrase for it. The piece ends up being a meditation of sorts on the Felix and Oscar-like nature of their different brands of comedy, with some nice sidelong glances at other Jewish planetary objects of affection, including Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman,  who once famously remarked that her grandmother got a "vanity" tattoo at "one of the better concentration camps" -- ("It said BEDAZZLED").

At the tail end, Harris offers a brief snippet from the joint interview (though no mention at all about the -- how should we say it -- Freudian casting of a 21-year-old actress opposite a fussy 61-year-old comic). True to their cranky cores, both men find themselves agreeing that they hate DVD commentaries, believing the voice tracks detract from the movie itself. Allen admits that "I can't work my DVD player. Only my wife can do it," prompting this rejoinder from David: "I can't do it either. I think maybe that contributed to my divorce."

Photo of Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood in "Whatever Works" by Jessica Miglio / Sony Pictures Classics