When Woody met Larry

This match made in Manhattan is such an obvious fit you wonder why Woody Allen didn’t think of it sooner

When Woody met LarryPeople like to kvetch: why doesn’t Woody Allen make movies like he used to? Whatever happened to the zany intellectual who made us all feel like New Yorkers, as he mocked bourgeois pretension and his own neuroses in the same exasperated breath? It’s easy to get nostalgic for the charming nebbish who chased lobsters with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Or the prof who fell for a student half his age in Manhattan—but that was long before Allen creeped us out by running off with his step-daughter. Now, even after the New Woody decamped to Europe and made two of the finest movies of his career (Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), there are fans who still pine for the Old Woody.

Well, the Old Woody is back, in a new guise. After making four movies in a row in Europe, the director has returned to the streets of Manhattan to make a film that is vintage Woody Allen—literally. Whatever Works, which opens across Canada on June 26, is based on an ancient screenplay that Allen wrote for Zero Mostel, his co-star in The Front (1976) and the original Fiddler on the Roof. Mostel died in 1977, the year Annie Hall came out, and Allen shoved the script in a drawer. Now he has dusted it off, updated its setting to Obama’s America, and cast Larry David—co-creator of Seinfeld and star of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm—as its star.

It’s such an obvious match you wonder why Allen hadn’t thought of it sooner. The director, who doesn’t appear onscreen, has anointed a taller, balder, somewhat younger Brooklyn-born-Jewish-comedian-with-glasses as his stand-in. In Whatever Works, the 40th feature Allen has written and directed, David plays a classic Woody Allen character, a washed-up particle physicist named Boris Yellnikof who lives alone in a grungy Manhattan loft. Boris is a crank, a misanthropic egghead who has a disdain for stupidity, a mortal fear of germs, a morbid fixation on hurtling to a pointless death in a godless universe—and a baffling magnetism that makes him irresistible to a southern babe young enough to be his granddaughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

Allen, 73, felt he was too old to play the part. And let’s face it, the public has long since lost its appetite for watching him worm his way into another May-December romance. So why not let a spry 61-year-old take the rap? In David, Allen has found the ideal alter ego. Or rather superego. Because David isn’t just Woody redux. He’s Woody re-engineered as an alpha male—brimming with bile but stripped of the needy, ingratiating traits that sweeten Allen’s typical characters. Essentially David plays a New York version of the same loudmouth know-it-all jerk he portrays in Curb Your Enthusiasm. And unlike so many Woody surrogates who have adopted the director’s flailing mannerisms—from John Cusack (Bullets Over Broadway) to Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity)—David never stammers; he bellows. Larry is Woody on steroids, a hard-core cynic unsoftened by humility.

The Woody-Larry merger makes a lot of sense. Both men hail from a New York lineage of Jewish comedy stars that goes back beyond Groucho Marx—whose quavering voice can be heard singing a ditty from Animal Crackers (1930) in the opening frames of Whatever Works. And both Allen and David were stand-up comics who parlayed their contrarian wit into franchises that defined a generation’s sense of humour and mythologized Manhattan as the capital of American irony. In the movies, Woody made romantic comedy safe for sardonic Jewish misfits, paving the way for the likes of Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. And on television, as co-creator and head writer of Seinfeld, Larry created an existential sitcom about a posse of neurotic New Yorkers who behaved like Woody’s collective progeny.

With Whatever Works, Jewish-American comedy comes full circle. But David has said he was surprised when Allen asked him to star in the movie, and tried to talk him out of it. Two decades ago, he’d played bit parts for Allen. He was the Communist neighbour in Radio Days (1987), and just before launching Seinfeld, he popped up as the manager of the theatre where Woody loses his mother to a magic trick in New York Stories (1989). But David doesn’t see himself as an actor. And he’s not used to following a script: in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the dialogue is improvised.

Allen tends to shoot scenes in long, uninterrupted takes. And I’ve always assumed his stammering delivery was an attempt to rock-hop through a script with a sense of spontaneity, while conveying an impression of dithering angst. But David is having none of that. Although Allen invited him to paraphrase the script, he decided to stick to the text.

In the opening scene of Whatever Works, Boris sits in a café with his cronies and bulldozes through a marathon rant without missing a beat. Breaking the fourth wall with a postmodern nonchalance reminiscent of Annie Hall, he then turns to the camera and informs his bewildered companions that “there’s an audience of people out there watching us.” And in one breathless uncut spiel, he lets it rip, telling us what we’re in for:

“I’m not a likeable guy. This is not the feel-good movie of the year. So if you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good about himself, go get yourself a foot massage . . . ” On it goes, a withering diatribe about everything from cardiograms and colonoscopies to liberal guilt about genocide in Darfur. “I’m sure you’re all obsessed with your sad little hopes and dreams,” Boris sneers. “Give me a break with your should-haves and could-haves.” Then, finessing his world view with a dash of snobbish narcissism, he concludes: “By the standards of a mindless, barbaric civilization, I’m pretty lucky.”

Allen’s homecoming film is set not in the glam New York of his early work, but in the Jewish delis and Chinatown markets of the Lower East Side. Boris is a divorced schlemiel who walks with a limp from a failed attempt at suicide by defenestration. (He jumped from his loft window and landed on a canopy.) A retired expert on string theory who “almost” won the Nobel Prize, he’s now a chess bum who tutors children and berates them as “incompetent zombies.” And with a wardrobe of checked Bermuda shorts, sweatpants and a ratty dressing gown, he looks like more of a slob than Woody ever did.

But he walks tall. And as much as Allen tries to dress him down, David—who has earned almost half a billion dollars from Seinfeld—still has the California tan and gleaming white teeth of an overconfident showbiz luminary, which is what he’s played on television for the past six years. “That’s what I am now, a rich prick,” David cracked in a monologue for a charity event in Las Vegas a few years ago. “ ‘Prick’ always follows the word ‘rich,’ just the way ‘schmuck’ always follows the word ‘poor.’ I went from a poor schmuck to a rich prick.”

In Whatever Works, David plays a poor schmuck who has the deluded self-importance of a rich prick. He’s a mock Henry Higgins in a movie that’s about as old-fashioned as romantic comedy gets these days—light years away from Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up universe of slackers and stoners.

As Melody, the Mississippi runaway Boris finds on the pavement, Evan Rachel Wood is the classic archetype of an adorable dumb blond, bearing no resemblance to the brittle lesbian she played in The Wrestler. A bundle of sunny ignorance wrapped in a magnolia drawl, she thinks that Boris won his Nobel Prize nomination in the Best Picture category. Boris brands her a “sub-mental baton twirler.” But, impervious to his insults, she sweet-talks her way into his loft, and eventually into his arms, which leaves him as confused as us.

Thankfully, there’s no love scene. And a handsome young suitor (Henry Cavill) waits in the wings, ready to fulfill Boris’s prophecy that “love does not conquer all, nor does it last.” And the farce blossoms into a merry culture war as Melody’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) breezes into town—a conservative matron who sheds her inhibitions and is reborn as a hot bohemian artist blessed with a gallery show and a ménage à trois.

Whatever Works draws its title from Boris’s core philosophy of opportune ennui:life is a lottery governed by “meaningless blind chance,” and as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you should pursue “whatever happiness you can filch or provide.” As a filmmaker, Allen follows a similar path. Routinely prolific, he makes one movie a year, good or bad, no matter what, with no shortage of great actors dying to work with him. When financing dried up in America, he found fresh money, and inspiration, in Europe. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which grossed US$93 million worldwide, was his biggest hit in a couple of decades.

Allen likes to shoot in the summer, when his two kids with Soon-Yi are out of school. But last year’s threat of a summer actors’ strike forced him to shoot earlier. He didn’t have a script, so he dug up an old one, refurbishing it with references to Viagra, Obama, and terrorism. One thing led to another. And with a cosmic happenstance that would make Boris proud, Woody, the New York Jew exiled to Europe, and Larry, the New York Jew exiled to L.A., ended up back in the old neighbourhood. When their movie premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, the hometown audience embraced it like a long lost son. For Woody, whatever works still works.