Mastering a new domain

Larry David brings his Seinfeld-ian perspective to film

Not since the death of Diana has there been a pop phenomenon as cataclysmic as the demise of Seinfeld. The surrounding hoopla has reached such, well, titanic proportions that it has turned the series' saturnine co-creator--balding, bespectacled Larry David--into a cult celebrity. The press has presented David as a mysterious demigod who coined the series' merciless creative commandments ("No hugging, no learning" among them); hovered over every aspect of the first seven of nine seasons; patterned Jason Alexander's George Costanza on his own self-destructive personality; and added kinks and shadows to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' combative gal friend Elaine, Jerry Seinfeld's even-keeled Jerry, and Michael Richards' jack-of-no-trades Kramer.

In Jim Windolf's jazzy, prescient ode to David in the New York Observer back in September 1996, Windolf contended that if David had been working in chic off-Broadway theater, he'd be "the toast of the Arts & Leisure pages in The New York Times." Two years later, the combination of penning the series' last episode (airing May 14) and writing and directing a first film (Sour Grapes) has landed David in the more deluxe pages of the New York Times Magazine. David Noonan profiled David as a neurotic's neurotic: a man riddled with phobias and a comedian who draws his material from oddball real-life calamities, like being an incompetent bra salesman or driving a limo for a half-blind woman.

All that may be true. But personally, David is more than the real-life version of that arrested adult George. (For one thing, he's married, with children.) Costanza couldn't get through an interview as unflappably as David did last week. As a stand-up comic, David was said to be disastrously abrasive, nothing like the ingratiating Seinfeld, but he isn't just the John Lennon to Seinfeld's Paul McCartney. As a sit-down comic, David is a pleasure.

Relaxing in a suite at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton, he appears genuinely genial and, to use a West Coast-y kind of word, centered. In town to plug the opening of Sour Grapes, a movie he acknowledges upfront "is probably not for everybody," he treats any discussion of individual scenes with an appreciative chuckle. He is relieved that I saw Sour Grapes as part of a creative continuum, not a mere rip-off of Seinfeld. "In anything I write," says David, "the characters are not going to be that dissimilar to the Seinfeld characters or to the characters in this movie. They're all going to have a part of me, be somewhat like me." David doesn't think the charge of self-imitation would be raised if he had performed in the series or the movie. "Woody Allen is in his movies," he says, "and the character he plays in Annie Hall is not that dissimilar to the character he plays in Manhattan."

The past two seasons of Seinfeld sans David proved how much he'd brought to the show--a keen hold on Costanza's thwarted character and a gift for mordant, frivolous lunacy as intricate as Oscar Wilde's. Sour Grapes indicates how much goodwill David gained with the audience by tailoring the series to its hot-and-tart ensemble. In Sour Grapes, jokes bubble, blat, and curlicue like weird elixirs in the vials and pipes of a horror-movie laboratory: volatile, but encased in glass. The film is a bit of a comedy clinic. You can imagine any comedian, writer, or director learning from it, while audiences veer between amusement (at its cleverness) and detachment (from its visual and emotional flatness). It's fascinating to see David bring out the verbal and physical style he helped perfect on Seinfeld in a host of different performers and use the freedom of a self-contained 90-minute story to throw the characters (and viewers) into total chaos. The acting and scene-making in Sour Grapes have the same italicized nuance as Seinfeld; they, too, stem from David's bifurcated sensibility--his dual appetites for mundane incidents and verbal syncopation. As he puts it, "Comedy has beats to it, and tones; it can be musical."

Sour Grapes tells the tale of two friendly cousins who fall out when one hits the jackpot at the slots in Atlantic City and then won't split the pot with the other. The saner of the anti-heroes, a surgeon named Evan (Steven Weber), teaches his cousin Richie (Craig Bierko), a shoe-sole designer, how to use a three-coin slot machine, then flips him two of the three quarters needed to hit the jackpot. Evan is understandably outraged that Richie wants to keep it all. David says, "I'm sure that most people in the audience take the doctor's side, because they want to think that they're unselfish and would share. But if you look at it logically, you might take Richie's side. He could have stopped anybody walking by and asked for change for a dollar and gotten the quarters from them. Or instead of saying, 'You got two quarters?' he could have asked Evan, 'Could you loan me two quarters?' It all comes down to the difference between 'got' and 'loan.'"

Since the relationships in the movie have the same curdled closeness as the ones in Seinfeld, I ask David where his penchant for claustrophobia came from. He goes into a sardonic riff about growing up in Brooklyn: " in an apartment building, people walking in and out of my house all the time, no privacy, everybody knowing your business, hearing fights all the time in the hallway, people screaming at each other--that's how I grew up. I remember getting ready for a date once, and it was almost like everybody in the building knew I had a date. People were coming in, 'Yo! You got a date, you got a date, where you going, who is she? You going out on a date? You look nice! Look at you!'"

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