New York Magazine uses the upcoming release of a new film by Woody Allen to consider whether this may be the last of the kind of comedy he exemplifies, the New York Jewish schnook, nebbish, and shlemiel comedy, focusing on “a brand of Jewish humor that has, in recent years, been all but scrubbed out–neurotic, depressive, abrasive, excluded.”
The movie is “Whatever Works,” directed by Allen and starring Larry David, like Allen a witer/director/performer specializing in being “neurotic, depressive, abrasive, [and] excluded.” The film is a throwback to Allen’s earlier films. It is his first movie in years to be set in New York, the location for his best-loved movies. Allen not only named one of his most acclaimed films “Manhattan” but made the city one of the most appealing characters in the movies. Often his lead characters’ only unconflicted affection is directed at the city.
And those nostalgic for Allen’s earlier work have a special treat in store.
Whatever Works, which opens June 19, is both a greeting and a farewell, a film that marks Allen’s return to the city he abruptly abandoned, cinematically speaking, several years ago, as well as a reminder that a certain kind of comedy of which he was once the undisputed master has vanished and is being resurrected only because of an unlikely convergence of circumstances. Remember the Woody Allen of the seventies, the guy who several generations of New Yorkers decided was the comedic poet laureate of their era of the city? The man with whom they had a great first date (1973’s Sleeper) that deepened into a full-on relationship (1977’s Annie Hall) and then further enriched itself into true love (1979’s Manhattan), because we always fall in love with the one who makes us laugh? Whatever Works is, in essence, the missing movie from that period–the film that would have rounded out the New York phase of Allen’s early career if only he had made it.
The whole article is well worth reading and I especially enjoyed the chart with the history of almost 6000 years of Jewish humor.
Michael J. Nelson is the former host and writer of the Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the author of the hilarious Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese. His witty commentary on movies is wildly funny but also very clever and perceptive. He spoke to me about his website, RiffTrax, where you can download his commentary to play along with your own or rented DVDs and upload your own to share with everyone else. He was every bit as much fun to talk to as I hoped.
How did you got started being snarky?
It came from watching movies. Midwestern people are almost by their nature snarky. And I came from a snarky family. My brothers and I always did that kind of thing, making smart-alecky comments about what we were watching. A lot of people do that but it falls away as you grow up and mature. My parents were very strict about bedtime, but they would put us to bed and then my dad would wake us up to watch some late night movie. My mom just rolled her eyes.
Did you get in trouble as a kid?
Well, someone once said, “Do you think you can make a living watching TV?” And I did!
What makes a movie a good candidate for comic riffing?
It has to take itself seriously. And it should probably have Keanu Reeves in it!
The main thing is that it is not boring. A lot of people don’t realize that truly bad movies are really boring and no one wants to watch them. There’s only so much that you can elevate with your comments. The baseline of entertainment has to be there. We’re enhancing and hopefully improving what is already there. I would have thought that sci-fi uniquely lends itself to what we do but if you carefully write something and work on it, it can be done on many different kinds of films. There’s subject matter that you can’t do but we’ve done dramas and other genres.
Are there actors you especially enjoy making fun of?
We’re big Patrick Swayze fans. We also give a lot of grief to Hayden Christienson — he didn’t take to the green screen acting very well.
Is there a movie that has such a devoted following that it can’t be riffed?
We did “Twilight!” That has both passionate fans and passionate detractors. A bunch of guys were dragged to it and wanted revenge on it in some way, to have us rescue it for them. The slow pace, and mopey, gothic overtones made it work — it became one of our fan favorites.
Tell me about RiffTrax.
It’s a full service comedy commentary site. We sell separate commentaries, video on demand, and shorts. People are constantly doing it themselves and wanted an outlet so we let people make their own and post them and compete with each other. That makes it possible for us to check out things we’d never do because the movie is too obscure for us. There are people out there who think we’re just picking on the mainstream and so they do films we’ll never get to.
We’ve been doing it for three years and it is growing. It has exceeded my expectations, and I’m especially happy to see so many younger people on the site. A goal would be to get a team of writers, people who want to do this. It is so much work. It takes so much time, we can’t quite keep up with the releases. A goal is to look at the uploaded tracks to see if there are people we can use, maybe get us close to doing all major releases.
The Broadcast Film Critics have announced their predictions for the movies of summer 2009:
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Away We Go
500 Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Outstanding Performances of the Summer:
Johnny Depp in “Public Enemies”
Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia”
Brad Pitt in “Inglorious Basterds”
It may be, as Thoreau said, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but in the movies, desperation is much more likely to be loud. “Revolutionary Road” is another movie about unhappiness, phoniness, and corrosive dysfunction behind the manicured lawns of suburbia story from Sam Mendes of American Beauty. This time, it is set just after WWII, based on the novel by Richard Yates. It is the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a couple who are devastated to find themselves unable to escape the stultification of conventional middle class lives and who respond by devastating each other.
There is a moment for each of us, when we begin to see outside everything we have known and start to think of something different for ourselves, confident that we can avoid the mistakes of our parents and their generation. And then there is another moment when we learn that it is not that easy. This notion of exceptionalism, whether at the personal or national level, is the question these characters must face.
And it is that issue that gives this film its power. Yes, it is beautifully observed detail, rich images, and brilliant, fearless performances and yes, it has a scathing portrayal of the foul rot beneath the superficial suburban prettiness, with only a madman who can tell the truth. But all of that has been done before and these stories themselves tend to risk an aura of smug, we’re-in-on-the-real-story superiority that is as artificial as the lives it is dissecting. What makes this story transcend its setting is the resonance it has with the notion of America’s own sense of its exceptionalism in the world and in history.