I have to declare a bias before I begin: I am a HUGE Larry David fan. I ‘discovered’ David three or so years ago when a mate, Mr I.R. “Golden God” Yeuuung, phoned and alerted me to the TV comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm with the irresistible assertion that “the guy in it looks just like you, and he goes on like you, and he’s ‘fuckin’ this fuckin’ that’ like you…and even his mannerisms and expression are like yours.”
Well, he was right. It was uncanny. Mind you, the similarities betwixt Larry and I end with our bank balances. And I’m nowhere near as funny or talented. Perhaps these differences are in some vague sense related?
For those who mightn’t be up with such things (like me, usually), Larry David was co-creator of Seinfeld. That’s his big claim to fame – if he was ever to make such a claim, which I can’t imagine him doing. To wit, his reaction to Woody Allen offering him the lead role in Whatever Works: “I thought Woody had become unhinged. I wondered who put this crackpot idea in his head. And of course as with anything I’ve ever been offered, I didn’t feel up to the task. Feeling up to the task is not my thing.”
Up to the task? Larry David OWNS Whatever Works! NO one could have bettered him as Manhattan misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff.
In previous reviews, I have portrayed myself as a comedian’s nightmare, sitting in the dark wryly grimacing or steadfastly blank-faced while the rest of the theatre hooted and stamped and slapped knees and made raucously merry. Not this time. Tears were rolling down my cheeks 5 minutes into Whatever Works as I sought to confine my hysteria to a Mutley wheeze, and although the movie ran out of legs before the finish line, I was still wiping my face at the end.
It was hysteria, I admit that. But I wasn’t the only one. The couple behind us were as bad. And my partner wasn’t far behind. Her mirth was given extra momentum – if not to the point of incontinence (a charge she naturally denied), then close – by David’s constant serving up of my foibles and facial expressions, and even my fucking limp ferchrissake…she marked each uncanny occasion of mirroring with smothered chortling and a nudge until I nudged her back with a sharpness that was, shall we say, pointed – I was missing the goddam dialogue!
So why did I find Boris/David so bloody hilarious? Woody Allen answers that in general terms in the following observation: “Being funny is sort of built into Larry. He just has it. He doesn’t have to push it. He just has to show up and perform the scenes credibly, without trying to be funny, just trying to be real. When Larry’s real he’s funny – because he’s funny in life.”
And specifically, what about the character of Boris? Well, truth to tell, he’s not a lot different from Larry David’s persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm. More intelligent, more cerebral, and sans the swearing, but you still get the impression this is David doing David a la Curb. Woody Allen: “Larry kept complaining to me what a mistake I was making by hiring him, telling me what a tiny range he has, how terrible he is, and all that.” Well, David might be right about his “tiny range”, but that’s OK by me!
See, as grotesquely misanthropic and wrong-minded as Boris is, as horribly inflated his opinion of himself, and deflated his opinion of the rest of the human race, as rude and arrogant and dismissive and sour and acerbic and cynical and defeatist and negative and cosmically profoundly lonely and isolated and panic-stricken by his mortality, at the core of his massively elaborate system of defences and his comic appeal is HUMANITY.
He’s the antidote to the smiley-faced, fallacious and simplistic pop-psychology-driven self-development crap that denies our reality as terminally flawed beings (and the presence and influence of the random in our lives). His focus is the negative, and his saving grace is his humour and wit, and the very human fear it hides.
If you’re an Anthony Robbins devotee, stay away. If, on the other hand, you hate that perfect-fanged blinkered positive-thinking American bullshit that makes for corporate and career success, you’ll say as I say, and that is thank fuck for Boris! And thank fuck I know people just like him (Matt, Lloyd, Jaime…you know who you are!). Not to mention the time-ravaged bloke depressing me from the other side of the mirror. Just like him in part, that is. Boris is, of course, an exaggeration in the service of comedy, but he’s certainly real enough to identify with.
Larry David’s portrayal of Boris is so Larry David that you feel safe in the assumption that he is also responsible for his character’s lines (he improvises most of his part in Curb Your Enthusiasm). In fact, he stuck to Woody Allen’s script. David: “I tried to [improvise], but the character is so much smarter than me that it didn’t sound right. It sounded too much like me and not enough like Boris.” So, bouquets and low, low bows to Allen. This dialogue is so entertaining, you could read the script like a book.
Having made it this far without referring to the synopsis or other actors, I’m tempted to finish off right here and call this an anti-review. But that would be pretentious and lazy (what’s new, some might interject).
OK, then. Boris is a 50-something quantum physics genius who has somehow managed to fail at his career, his marriage, suicide, and virtually everything else other than pontificating – with a glorious cynical wit – on the misery of life, the wretched state of the human race and the pointlessness and ridiculousness of our doomed existence.
His path takes an unexpected turn when he reluctantly takes in Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty, naïve runaway from the South, for a night. One night turns into more, and they end up married. Melody’s appalled parents arrive on the scene, as does a young suitor. Wacky romantic entanglements follow, and through sheer luck the muddle sorts itself out such that everyone ends up in a relationship that works for them, however improbable, however bizarre.
Yeah, reduced like that, the story doesn’t enthrall, but with Wood’s work (that I’ve seen, at least), the dialogue that powers the narrative and fleshes out the characters is where the movie succeeds or fails.
Do I need to state that Whatever Works succeeds? All the actors are terrific, their struggle for oxygen around Larry David notwithstanding. Surprisingly to me, however, the movie’s been condemned by many critics as tired and unoriginal. There’s a lot of whining about the script having been written 30 years ago and dusted off, leading to charges that this is an uninspired Woody merely going through his paces. Then there’s the “problem” with another Woody movie featuring a relationship between an old fart and a young spunk (often accompanied by snide asides about Woody and Soon-Yi).
Firstly, who cares when the script was written? Secondly, I wonder if these underwhelmed critics would have assessed the film differently if they’d watched without prior knowledge that the script was revisited. Thirdly, forget about extra-movie considerations like Woody and Soon-Yi, get off your PC hobby horses and…hint hint… look at the title of the fucking film and think about it!
With due acknowledgement of my Larry David bias, I’ve gotta say Whatever Works is the funniest Woody film I’ve seen. Larry David’s Boris character is in the same bracket as my all-time faves – Falstaff, Holden Caulfield, Gulley Jimson and Humbert Humbert. When accolades for this gut-wobbler of a movie are being handed out, Woody and Larry David should be acknowledged in the same breath.
My one reservation: that Larry David will now be projected further into the public spotlight and find himself unable to deny his success. Keep that glass half empty, Larry, for all our sakes, for that’s where the best humour resides. Then again, advice like that is surely not required in the light of this comment of David’s:
“Whatever Works means you have to live your life not by what society is telling us are the rules that are laid out for most people, but for whatever your drummer is telling you…You can’t be with someone just because they’re in the right demographic or they’re right on paper. That even if you have nothing in common with someone, something can happen when you’re with them that feels right and comfortable. This of course has never happened to me, and even if it did I would find reasons to reject it. With me it’s whatever doesn’t work.”
(Source of quotes from Woody Allen and Larry David: Production Notes)
Other reviews by Rolan Stein: