Allen told him he’d be fine; he even encouraged David to leap away from the screenplay and improvise. But David arrived determined to stick to the script, retreating to his trailer to memorize lines between scenes. Both men were, in a way, now strangers to a New York that they’d left behind, and had a desire to return to a crankier, more Balkanized version of the city. When Boris’s bourgeois, upscale (read: assimilated) domestic life on Beekman Place falls apart, he retrenches and moves down the ladder. Allen’s seventies draft had placed him in the Village, but this version relocates him to a part of the Lower East Side bordering Chinatown that’s remained untouched by decades of hipsters, gentrifiers, and real-estate opportunists, a land of knishes and kvetches and guys with bum legs and creaky jokes. For New York Jews, it’s the old country—the original Zip Code of existential gloom.
Allen and David don’t know each other that well, but watching them watch each other during a joint interview, it’s easy to imagine where they found common ground during production—in the joy of glumness. It’s hard to mourn the passing of a style of comedy that was based almost entirely on suffering, but let’s be honest: Jews have always been really good at making suffering funny, whether it’s over the oppression of a people or a bad piece of whitefish. Nobody has gotten more mileage out of this than these two, so it’s strange to suddenly see them as custodians of a dwindling tradition. One can feel excited about their comedic descendants and still wistful about the passing of the torch. For now, let’s just be glad that neither man has decided to give up and become happy. “I don’t feel that I’m pessimistic,” says Allen. “That’s something I get called: pessimistic, nihilistic, cynical … I don’t see it that way. I just have a realistic attitude, and the hard facts are so brutal and terrifying that each person has his own way of rationalizing that it’s not so bad. But it is so bad. And the trick is to acknowledge that, and still get through.”
As Allen speaks those words, David starts laughing (where others might weep). “I agree with that,” he says. “I go through life feeling sorry for pretty much everybody. I’ll pass a toll, and I’ll think about the toll collector standing in there for eight or ten hours a day—how do they do it? How do they get up in the morning and go back? I feel sorry for everyone.”
The subject turns to the eventual DVD of Whatever Works. Allen’s movies never come packaged with extras—considering what a nostalgist he is, it’s remarkable that he’s never felt like rewatching even one of his movies after it’s left the editing room, let alone used the occasion of a DVD release to open up his process to audiences.
Woody: “They’re called outtakes because they’re out of the movie. And I don’t know why anyone wants to do the commentaries.”
Larry: “I hate them. I did them once, and I’d never do it again.”
Woody: “This is the thing—”
Larry: “And by the way? When I’m watching, I’m enjoying it and I’m thinking, I don’t want to interrupt with my chatter. I’m intruding on this!”
Woody: “I agree with Larry. You make the film, and it’s the film that you’re selling. You’re not selling your comments.”
Larry: “The sad thing is that people get more interested in the commentary about the movie than the movie itself.”
Woody: “And I can’t work my DVD player. Only my wife can do it.”
Larry: “I can’t do it either. I think maybe that contributed to my divorce.”
The evening before our conversation, Whatever Works had made its debut as the opening-night attraction of the Tribeca Film Festival. Over a thousand people filled the Ziegfeld (apparently, Tribeca now extends to 54th and Sixth), and Allen, though he didn’t introduce the movie, at least showed up, which is impressive in itself. In his standard mufti of tweed jacket and baggy khakis, he flinched and shuffled along the press line, posing for pictures with Previn, with David, and with the film’s co-stars Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson.
Allen says that the persistence of some in interpreting his movies as chapters in an ongoing autobiography has been “one of the banes of my existence.” But even if you accept that his fictional creations aren’t him, the similarities are tough to ignore. Check out the red-carpet pictures from that evening: His expression is 30 percent good soldier and 70 percent “get me out of here” queasy hypochondriac. Now try not to think of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer working himself into a malingering lather in order to wuss out of an awards-show appearance.
It was a friendly house, and the appreciative chuckles began almost as soon as the opening credits ended and David launched himself into the first of his foaming-at-the-mouth fugues. “You are a very difficult man to live with!” Boris’s exhausted wife tells him just before he jumps out the window. Now that’s (Jewish) comedy—a long-lost, brined-in-pickle-juice message in a bottle. The capacity crowd greeted that kind of despair as an old friend, and their laughter had a late-middle-aged timbre, the happy-sad sound you hear when people witness the opening of a time capsule and see something that’s both right in front of their eyes and long gone. It was as if a collective agreement had been made to commune one more time with that old bleak magic before walking back out into a city that has left it behind.
Allen didn’t hear the laughter. By then, he had disappeared again, fleeing the theater before there was the slightest risk of his seeing a frame of his postcard from the past. Hello, he must be going.