The Unshine Boys

“It used to be Diane Keaton with me—she always used to tell me, ‘I’m terrible, I’m awful, I can’t do it, you should get someone else.’ And she was always brilliant. Well, Larry is like this,” said Woody Allen via telephone from his Upper East Side apartment last week. The 73-year-old director was discussing his new movie Whatever Works, which stars Larry David, and will open the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22 before hitting theaters in June.

“I’d always been a fan. … I asked him to do it, and he said, ‘But I can’t act! I can only do what I do, I’m not an actor, you’ll be disappointed,’” said Mr. Allen. “You know, those are the ones who can always do it. The ones that tell you how great they are can never do it. Larry is all, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it,’ but when it came time to do it, right out of the box, he did it. And not just the comedy, which I expected, but all the other things he had to do which required acting and emotions and being touching and all that—he did that, too.”

“I didn’t even know I was on his radar, to tell you the truth,” said Larry David, 61, with utmost seriousness, speaking from Los Angeles a couple of days later. “I’m very surprised about that. When you hear that Woody Allen is a fan of yours … ” He paused. “It’s surprising.

“I gave him every opportunity to get someone else. I was kind of uncomfortable. I was out of my comfort zone,” he said. Then he laughed. “Of course, the comfort zone is not very big! I take one step to the right and I’m out of my comfort zone.”

So, a new Woody Allen movie starring Larry David filmed right here in New York City. Could there be a more deep-fried mix of talent, comedy and neuroses? For most of us, Woody Allen is as quintessential New York as the Chrysler Building. Many New Yorkers grew up with a vision of this city spun by Annie Hall and Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, where the skyline always twinkles and romance lurks around every limestoned corner; where brainy, nervous men charm young and naïve beautiful women in grand prewar apartments lined with bookshelves; where there are country weekends with lobsters to chase and always—always—love to find and fail. And then there’s Larry David, another Brooklyn boy made good, co-creator and writer of Seinfeld, which defined New York all over again in the ’90s, with its exquisite, endless examinations and sweating of the small stuff—soup Nazis, being master of the domain, parking garages and puffy shirts. Since his 1999 HBO special Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the still-airing series that followed, he’s made performance masterpieces of excruciating situations. The news that he was to star in Mr. Allen’s latest had some rubbing their hands in anticipatory delight, others sharpening their knives, all anxious to see if Mr. David could pull off the ultimate as a Woody misanthropic paradigm.

(This is harder than it might seem … remember the disastrous Jason Biggs turn in 2003’s Anything Else? Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity?)

But we’ll go ahead and say it: Whatever Works is Woody Allen exactly as you want your Woody Allen to be. It’s witty, dark, poignant, zany and hilarious, and showcases a New York filtered through the Allen lens as we’ve never seen it before. Meaning, forget the Upper East Side! This film creeps through the crooked and narrow streets of the Lower East Side and Chinatown, knishes to hanging chickens.

And as for Mr. David … he indeed pulls it off and then some playing Boris Yellnikoff, a half-suicidal almost–Nobel Prize–winning physicist who suffers from night terrors (he wakes up with strangling death screams) and minor OCD (he washes his hands and sings “Happy Birthday”—twice!—in order to kill all the germs), then tosses it all away (literally) and considers the majority of Earth’s population too stupid and meaningless to even deal with.

The Woody angel who enters this time—the beloved innocent woman—is Evan Rachel Wood as Melody, a teenage Southern runaway who manages to entrance Boris in spite of himself. A May-December romance (familiar to all Allen devotees) follows with its inevitable complications, but darker than usual—heartbreak ensues. Don’t ask! Filling in any and all gaps is a terrific supporting cast including  Patricia Clarkson, Michael McKean and Ed Begley Jr.

Whatever Works is as nimble as his smaller comedies but still feels like a big Woody film, in the Hannah dimension. It also seems to carry the well-tempered glow of late Woody Allen with a well-satisfied view of late life and with few illusions. And a great surmounting romantic joke. And somehow Larry David of all people has the ideal astringency for a Woody Allen protagonist, cutting through the plot without giving up the layers of sentimentality and darkness that make the soot of his New York romances.


MR. ALLEN SAID he originally wrote Whatever Works, his 39th feature-length film, with Zero Mostel (another great Brooklyn Jewish comedian and Mel Brooks’ original Max Bialystock from the Producers) in mind for the role of Boris. But Mostel died in 1977 and Mr. Allen put the script in a drawer. He said that when he decided he wanted to film something in New York again after shooting his last four films in Europe, he dusted it off and updated it. 

The title refers to a rather pragmatic philosophy when it comes to our treacherous human hearts, namely that if you should find something or someone in your life that makes you happy, go with it—regardless if it might appear, at first glance, to be all wrong. “I do believe in that strongly myself,” Mr. Allen said. “As long as you’re not hurting anybody … or doing anything that’s causing any mischief or hurting anyone or anything awful, that whatever works to get through your life is fine. All the nonsense about what one should be doing and shouldn’t be doing and what’s quote unquote appropriate according to what I call the appropriate police—it’s nonsense. It’s a tough scuffle through life,” he said. “A tragic situation. Whatever gets you through—as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else—is fine.”

Whatever Works has its fair share of dark corners, but audiences may be pleasantly surprised at its ultimately sunny rom-com message. It’s strange to think that Mr. Allen wrote this film decades ago, long before we learned far too much about his own private romantic struggles (though its doctrine is an easy leap from his infamous “The heart wants what it wants” remark to Time magazine in 1992 amidst the Mia/Soon-Yi scandal).

“I think my philosophy has been consistent over the years, and it appears either persuasive or idiotic depending on how good the film is,” he said. “If I make a film and the film itself works, then I feel people come away saying, ‘Gee, the philosophy here makes sense.’ And if I make a film where I’ve struck out and I’ve made bad artistic choices and the film is not good, then they think, ‘His ideas are stupid and narcissistic and irrelevant.’ But really the ideas have always been the same … it’s just that I’ve failed artistically.”

The Unshine Boys