The Unshine Boys

“I have what I call, what I would perceive to be, a very realistic view of life, whereas other people criticize me all the time as being, you know, cynical and misanthropic and nihilistic,” Mr. Allen said. “You know, I don’t think I am! It’s possible that I am and I have a blind spot. But I don’t think so. I think my perception of it is correct—that it’s a tragic event and it takes real improvising and real luck and real work to get through it.”

By all accounts, the shoot for Whatever Works was a pleasant one. Mr. Allen directs long, difficult takes, but keeps civilized hours, and for the New York natives like Patricia Clarkson, it was a chance to walk home from work. Michael McKean, who plays one of Boris’ few friends, had worked with Mr. Allen in the 2004 Atlantic theater production of Secondhand Memory. He said Mr. Allen seemed particularly energized and happy. “He seemed to be in good spirits,” Mr. McKean said. “He had a great relationship with his DP and the rest of the crew. The thing with him is that he knows what he wants, that’s key. And he had a really good group.” Mr. McKean said he would take Mr. David and Ms. Wood (recommended for the role by Mr. Allen’s wife) to Katz’s deli for late-night corned beef.

“He writes these really beautiful notes,” said Ms. Clarkson, of receiving her second Woody Allen script. “Like with Whatever Works—it’s always something funny like, ‘If you have something better to do, I’ll understand.’ And then I open the script and it’s this divine part.”

And when she says notes, she means notes! No emails for Woody Allen. “It’s gone past me,” he said, of the Internet age. “I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a word processor or any of that stuff. I’ve never been able to work on instruments. I don’t get gadgets at all. I have a typewriter and still, after all these years, have great trouble changing the ribbon on it.” He paused. “I know I’m missing something. I know when friends Google instant information or things”—he keeps a Webster’s dictionary close by—“it just seems so futuristic to me! I’m still plodding and doing it the other way. I don’t say that proudly, or like it’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a good thing. I’ve just never been able to make the transition.” 

Mr. Allen said he always tells his actors to paraphrase him. “If you’re going to ask for a divorce, ask for a divorce,” he said. “Do it in your own words.” Mr. David, an excellent improviser by nature, wound up wanting to stick to the script, though he said he had the urge in the beginning of shooting to try to change things around. “I’ve been speaking my own words my entire life,” Mr. David said. “It started to get a bit refreshing to get someone else’s words in my mouth.” (Did he ever, The Observer wondered, start to feel comfortable in his leading role? “Maybe the next-to-last day,” he laughed. “Yeah, on the last day I was like, you know what? I thought this is pretty easy!”)

 

MR. ALLEN SAID that now that he’s finished his film—he’s done the foreign prints, he’s completed the DVD color corrections—he’ll never see it again.

“I made Take the Money and Run in 1968 and I’ve never seen it since, or any of the others.” But surely he’ll attend the glitzy Ziegfeld Tribeca Film Festival premiere on the 22nd? Mr. Allen said no, he never actually sits through the films. “I go in and walk on the red carpet … smile … answer the questions, and then I sit down and the second the lights dim, I’m out. I’m at a restaurant with my wife and we have dinner. And then I go to the party afterwards and go back into phony social mode where people are exchanging enormous insincerities. They’ve hated the film but they’re saying, ‘Gee, great film. Great film.’”

You might expect this kind of gloom from Boris, but not from Woody Allen! 

“I can’t ever say I’ve been happy with my films,” he said quietly. “It’s always the same story: I set out to make them and I’m setting out to make, you know, the greatest thing ever made. Citizen Kane or Othello. But by the time I’ve finished, when the compromises set in, and I’ve screwed this up artistically and I couldn’t get that actor and I didn’t have enough money for this, and I guessed wrong on this joke … by the time I put the picture together, I’ve gone from being sure that I was going to make the next great American masterpiece to just praying that it won’t be an embarrassment.” Mr. Allen sighed. “So I find myself in the cutting room, scrambling, taking a moment out of here and sticking it there. Putting a piece of music in here, and patching up something there, and hoping that I’ll just breath and survive. I’ve already abandoned all integrity and all hope of an uncompromising masterpiece.”

By reaching out to Larry David in Whatever Works, Woody Allen has added something to his canon that he might never have gotten on his own. He hired the one working comedian who could put a knife edge on the usual adorableness of the Woody Allen interpreter. Whatever Works may not be an uncompromising masterpiece, but it’s the astonishing collaboration of two uncompromising comic masters of the romantic and tortured New York psyche.

And it works.