The Unshine Boys

The concept of things seeming right versus being right has indeed popped up in Mr. Allen’s films before. But Whatever Works might be the only film that so plainly and deeply examines it. At the start of the film, Boris looks around at his comfy life, his just-right uptown apartment and appropriate spouse, and realizes he feels miserable and trapped enough to die (something he manages to fail at, too). He trades it all in for a ratty bathrobe, teaching chess and holding forth in cramped coffee shops—often while looking straight into the camera and speaking to the audience directly. Yet happiness is lurking for him, even if he doesn’t know it, in the most unusual of places.

“This happens all the time,” said Mr. Allen. “You meet somebody, you have a relationship with that person, and, on paper, it just seems completely logical and right and it is right, and yet for some inexplicable reason, you go and gravitate toward the person who is consummately wrong for you, and makes your life into a hell. And that still attracts you more. And had you settled for the person who was right on paper, you indeed would not have been happy.”

Back in Los Angeles, Larry David considered the “whatever works” philosophy as it might apply to him (in fact, he took a night to think about it before phoning The Observer back with his thoughts).

“Even though something might be right on paper, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work,” he said. “Whereas something very odd on paper could be perfect, and something about that person makes you feel good. That’s the most important thing,” he said. “Usually for me, those are the first people I reject. The ones that make me feel good. Why should I feel good when there are women who can’t stand me and whom I can’t be myself around? Those are the ones I want.”

This sort of sentiment is exactly what we’d expect to hear from Mr. David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he plays a bizarro version of himself. But consider this: If that persona, the one we think we know (“What I’m playing on TV is not really me,” he said. “Although I’ve said many times that I wish it was”), is now, in Whatever Works, playing yet another cinematic version of Woody Allen, we’re now into Lost-levels of confusion when it comes to the line between performer and reality. Where are we? Is Boris, with his crushing anxieties and disgust with the human race, a representation of the director himself?

“I don’t know Woody that well, but it’s pretty obvious it’s at least a bit of some of who Woody is,” Mr. David said. “He must have seen something in me to make a passable stand-in for him.” Mr. David said he had brought Annie Hall home recently for his 14-year-old daughter to watch. “She couldn’t get through it because [Woody’s character] reminded her too much of me. She can’t watch me, either. As far as I know, we’re the only two people she’s said that about.”

 

ONE COULD SPEND hours listing the similarities between Mr. Allen and Mr. David (both New York–born, outer-borough Jewish comedians with wicked dark streaks, a certain amount of performative self-hatred plus self-regard, sharp pens, significant intellectual chops and even sharper tongues), but the differences are more interesting. For example, though both men may be called pessimists, the ways in which they are pessimistic are quite contrary.

“I think [Woody’s] probably more of a pessimist about the big picture,” Mr. David said. “The hopelessness, meaninglessness of it all—the blackness of eternity—those questions. Whereas I suspect I’m probably more pessimistic about the smaller things: The relationship won’t work out, Obama will lose, the Yankees will lose, the movie will bomb—things like that. People won’t watch ball games with me because I’m so pessimistic. I’m no fun to be around.” (But what happens when Obama does win? “I know! My whole world goes topsy-turvy. I still can’t believe it,” he said.)

Case in point, perhaps, was Mr. Allen’s response to what The Observer had felt was a pretty straightforward happy resolution in the film. “I’m always so didactic in everything I do, and so heavy-handed, I wanted it to be clear that even though it was a happy ending, we all still remain in this dreadfully tragic predicament, and a tragic life, and that the story did end with a certain amount of temporary happiness,” he said. Um, really? “I did want to portray Larry’s take on life as closer to reality than other people. He might seem like a complainer, a malcontent, like a misanthrope, a cynic, a nihilist—whatever words you want to impute to him, but there’s a great deal of sad truth to his perceptions. And I wanted to make that very clear at the end of the movie.” 

Larry David laughed when later told of his director’s assessment. “I think generally it feels that there are moments of joy, but at the bottom it’s doom and gloom. O.K., so there’s a big pool of doom and gloom and every now and then you can swim up to the surface like a dolphin and get some joy and then you go back under.”