A man well-along in his years, divorced, plagued by an impenetrable sense of cosmic despair, socially handicapped by neurosis and mental superiority, romantically nitwitted and prone to rhythmically reciting one-liners to himself and addressing the fourth wall.
Yes, it is summertime, and time for a new Woody Allen dark comedy, “Whatever Works.”
While a description contains all the trappings of Allen’s own directorial personality – or at least, the stereotypes of it – make no mistake: the unlikeable protagonist was not a role written for Allen himself to play. Penned 30 years ago, “Whatever Works” was part of a loose New York-based comedy trilogy, alongside “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall,” written around actor Zero Mostel starring as lead character Boris Yellnikoff. Mostel died before it could be filmed and the script gathered dust, before its revival last year with Larry David cast as the new leading man.
“This is not a part that I could’ve played — even if I was younger… Larry is able to do this kind of sardonic, sarcastic, vitriolic humor and get away with it. There’s something obviously built into him,” Allen said at the “Whatever Works” press conference in New York last week. “If I was to do [the part], I wouldn’t be as graceful at it, and you’d think that I was nasty. If I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius and saying people were cretins, then you would not like me. And [Larry] is one who can. When Zero died, I never thought for one minute doing the part myself… I didn’t rewrite anything for Larry, Larry just seemed to fit it like a glove.”
David also went in with the understanding that he wasn’t playing Woody Allen. “Nor would he want me to play him,” David said, though he admitted to reluctance accepting the role. “I don’t really like challenges. I called Woody and said, ‘I don’t know about this…’ [Woody] said it would be a little bit of a stretch for me, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
The “stretch” comes from Allen’s monologue-laden scripts, with exacting language that may otherwise mute David’s own humor, as best expressed in his improvisations in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Comedic chaos is introduced in the film mostly by a cascade of characters in Boris’ life. After divorcing his first, rich wife Jessica (Carolyn McCormick) with an exclamation point (he jumps out a window), Boris is plagued by Southern runaway and airheaded love interest Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), her father John (Ed Begley, Jr.), plus a host of children to whom he coaches chess after a heady career teaching String Theory at Columbia. It’s through these bewildering, unexpected turns in these relationships that Allen explains the delicacies of happiness and coincidence.
“Whatever Works” marks a return to the New York setting for Allen, who has more recently set his last four films in European locales including Spain and London.
“It’s very expensive to make movies in New York. I can’t afford to do it. I was going to make my next film in New York. I’d be millions of dollars short. So we shifted to London and made the cast British,” he says of his as-yet-untitled next project. “My memories of New York are unrealistic. I remember the New York of Hollywood movies, where people would live in penthouses with white telephones… with champagne corks and people dressed in tuxedos and making very witty banter… So that’s the New York that I’ve depicted in my life and that I’ve lived in my life. And it’s caused me a lot of grief.”
When asked how his directorial and writing style has changed in the years since he’s written “Whatever Works,” Allen responded with, in essence: not much.
“Marginally I’ve gotten better. It’s not an exact science. I’ve now made 40 movies – ever time you’ve made a new [movie], it’s a new experience [but] you’ve learned very little from the past. Its 10% or 5% you learn. The rest, you have or you don’t have,” he says. “I’m better than I was when I made ‘Take The Money And Run’ but not much better than I was when I made ‘Annie Hall’ or around that era. I learned very little after that. The only thing that does change — you have some life experiences and you suffer a certain amount and you incorporate that into your work.”
“Whatever Works” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, June 19.