Mastering a new domain
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: "...living 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!'"
In Seinfeld, the hero is Jewish and the audience assumes that everyone except Elaine is too; in Sour Grapes, the only ethnic reference comes when Richie's mother complains about the dearth of bagels in Atlantic City. David admits, "I draw on the voices I heard growing up." He has a knack for capturing the spieling rhythms and inflections of Yiddish-influenced melting-pot vernacular.
Some pundits criticized Seinfeld, especially in the first half of its run, for taking place in an ultrawhite Upper West Side; by the time it became a cultural phenomenon, would-be moralists like Maureen Dowd were excoriating it as a celebration of trivia-minded, self-absorbed baby boomers. In fact, David's confident skewering of his highly particularized characters and ruthless drive for the laugh in any situation liberate him as a satirist. He tackles just the sort of charged, ambiguous subjects that more superficially "open" and "feeling" talents would never touch, including racial sheepishness and confusion. One of the wittiest scenes in Sour Grapes comes when a pair of detectives interviews an elderly suburban couple about a black homeless man breaking and entering a neighbor's house. The wife can barely bring herself to note the culprit's race because the courtly, patient lead detective is an African-American himself. "It's a touchy subject," David concedes, "but it's nothing I thought about until I got to the scene. I realized it would be funnier if the neighbors found themselves unable to say who this guy was because there's a black detective and they're embarrassed."
And what about making the homeless person black in the first place? "There are white homeless people in the movie too, even if the guy who gets the biggest part is black; and it's crazy to think there aren't any black homeless people, you know? I didn't want to be held back by any sort of political correctness issues, though I was aware that white people would have a problem with it. I love the way white people feel they always have to speak on black people's behalf, because they're offended by something that black people aren't offended by at all!
"Not that I'm deliberately setting out to offend people," David continues, "but I expect some people to be offended along the way. S.J. Perelman once said it was 'the office of comedy to offend.'" David is anti-sentimental at gut level and fatalistic in his view of human nature. Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo), primarily a dramatic writer, once said that he quit writing for television because the characters in a TV series could never change. David, exclusively a comic writer, embraces the idea that characters on TV never change. And they don't in his movie either. "I like that," David says, "because I've known people my whole life, and I've never seen anybody change. I haven't changed, and I can't tell you one person who's changed. It always just seems so contrived to me, the way people change in movies; I don't like to see it, especially in comedies. It's not funny to see somebody who's inherently one way and then all of a sudden has an experience that changes him--how is that funny? Maybe it works in drama; I don't think it does in comedy. And I like to stick a little closer to life, I think. It's one of those things about the Seinfeld show too. It was very down-to-earth. How often do you have a moment with a friend, when you look at each other and give each other a big hug, or something like that? It just doesn't happen."
I say I suspect David would agree that it's more likely you'll have a moment when you look at an old friend and realize he's a schmuck. "Exactly!" he responds. "You look at him, and you realize you want to get away from him! To get somebody to give you this big hug--it's got to be a huge thing, a death, some huge event. Don't you think? But on TV it seems to happen regularly; every week somebody's crying, in a comedy! So we tried to avoid that on Seinfeld. I wrote this episode 'The Kiss Hello' because of my aversion to kissing people hello. Like every social encounter I would say to myself, 'Oh, do I have to kiss so-and-so?' It would ruin my 'Hello!' It would really detract from my entrance, thinking, 'Do I kiss her, and not kiss that one?' And I noticed that the women I didn't kiss hello, I had a much better relationship with. Because I could just say, 'Hey, how ya doin'?' I wasn't afraid to see them. There wasn't an awkward moment. So I wrote this episode thinking, 'Maybe, if people watch this, they'll stop kissing me hello.' But of course it didn't happen."
Building jarring ambiguity into a banal encounter has become one of David's specialties. In Sour Grapes, Richie, suddenly wealthy, calls his boss "fuck-face" for denigrating one of his shoe designs; after he's fired, he falls back on a cliche to cover his exit. David explains, "He's got his money, he doesn't need his boss anymore, and when he leaves, he tells the guy, 'You take care of yourself.' So he's very surprised when the guy answers him, 'I intend to.' So Richie says, 'I'm sure you do,' and the guy says, 'Why wouldn't I?' We came up with that conversation on the set, and it's one of my favorite scenes in the movie. There are so many conversations I love to hear that you really don't hear. Things that people shouldn't be talking about but that circumstances force them to talk about."
David savors misfires, even in casual talk. "I do love to see things fall apart," he says, "and not necessarily come back together. It must be some kind of anarchistic impulse I have." A movie gives David the leeway to include the irrevocable breakup of long-term relationships as part of his basic repertoire. "In the show," he explains, "we always tried to avoid fights between the characters where they're not speaking. Although the characters would have arguments with each other, we never did one episode like that because you would know, at the end of the episode, that they'd be talking again.
"We wanted to keep people interested in the story, and one way was to keep the outcome unpredictable. We did one episode that opened things up in a way, and that was the Junior Mints episode. Up until then the comedy was still grounded in reality. But [in that show] Jerry and Kramer go to watch this operation and the Junior Mint falls in the body, and all of a sudden that opened us up to do some crazier things."
Things get even crazier in Sour Grapes. Without giving anything away, let's just say the action includes a unique form of double-jointed fellatio and the transformation of a TV heartthrob into a fluttery soprano. David says, "It's a black comedy; you don't want any sentiment or people in the audience feeling sorry for anyone on screen. You just want people laughing.
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