The Return of the New York Neurotic

A Woody Allen movie starring Larry David is, in theory, a perfect storm of urban neurosis. "I'm not a likable guy," announces David's character, Boris Yellnikoff, at the start of Whatever Works. David, the star and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm, has always been a more aggressive neurotic than the kvetcher Allen, whose characters tend to mask their misanthropy with halting self-denigration. Playing "himself" on HBO, David is a beehive of irritability, lashing out at a world that always contrives to reward his contempt with humiliation. In Allen's movie, as a suicidal former physics professor convinced that he's a genius and that the world is spinning out of control, his misanthropy is even more ferocious. But the funny thing is, his venom leaves no sting. Though Boris tells the audience "this isn't a feel-good movie," this likable but paper-thin Allen effort is precisely that, an urban fairy tale with a happy ending that's anything but hard-won. (Story continued below...)

Has the Neurotic New York Jew lost his power to make us squirm? Watching David enacting one of Allen's archetypal alienated souls, I couldn't help but think that neither of these angst-ridden schmoes could have existed if it weren't for Oscar Levant, the man who almost single-handedly introduced The Neurotic into the pop-culture lexicon. Levant, initially renowned as a gifted classical pianist and the foremost interpreter of Gershwin, frequently popped up in movies (An American in Paris, The Bandwagon) as the comically cynical sidekick. But it was his appearances on TV in the 1950s that left an indelible and twisted stamp. Brilliant, hypochondriacal, mordantly and sometimes cruelly witty, both drug-addicted and manic-depressive, he turned his mental instability into subversive vaudeville. As savage on himself ("Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character," he told Jack Parr) as on his targets (When Frank Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped, he said "it must have been done by music critics"), Levant was a blinking, twitching affront to the can-do optimism of the Eisenhower era. He got thrown off the air in 1956 with his comment on Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe's Jewish wedding: "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her."

Levant's neurosis was no act: frequently institutionalized, chronically self-destructive, he was too unstable to sustain a career in the mass media. His unpredictable appearances late in life on the Jack Parr talk show inspired a mixture of awe, discomfort, hilarity and condescension: a fearless oracle to some, a circus freak to others. There was no way, back then, that such a sacred monster would be the central character in a Hollywood comedy. But by the 1970s, Levant's fringe sensibility had moved closer to the center: a new generation of comics—thank you, Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May—and a rebellious new counterculture had made the world safe for neurotics, outcasts and ethnic movie stars. What was most radical about Annie Hall in 1977 wasn't just that a nebbishy, brainy and self-doubting Jew could be the star of a romantic comedy but that he could get the beautiful WASP girl.

Twenty and 30 years later, Woody was still getting the girl; as he grew older, though, the girl didn't. This was more perplexing than radical, if not downright creepy. The neurotic misanthrope had become a staple (in its most homogenized version he was Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men), but as it devolved into shtik, it lost its destabilizing edge. Perhaps the last Allen neurotic with teeth was his angry writer in 1997's Deconstructing Harry (working title: The Meanest Man in the World), a movie whose dyspepsia made it his most divisive since Stardust Memories.

Whatever Works is cut from similar black cloth, but Yellnikoff's inconsolable pessimism is challenged by a bubble-headed, good-hearted teen runaway named Melody St. Ann Celestine (Rachel Wood) who worms her way into his crusty heart, and even weds him. (Don't worry, that's not the happy ending.) This downtown Pygmalion story gives way to one of Woody's patented paeans to New York, as Melody's evangelical parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) show up in pursuit of their vagrant daughter, only to have their own lives transformed by the magical elixir of New York bohemianism. This is fun, but it turns Boris's doomsday neurotic rants into mere cartoon caterwauling. Levant, who never got a happy ending, would no doubt sneer.