Jewish Humor, After Woody

Michael Fox August 15, 2007

Beginning with “Bananas” in 1971, Woody Allen defined and dominated a specific kind of film comedy for the next three decades. His movies were populated by (and aimed at) attractive, college-educated urban singles with every conceivable advantage and no rational reason to be unhappy. The best of them, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” worked on three levels: as thinking-person’s gagfests, as broad satires of a certain social strata and — thanks to the director’s neurotic lead performances and the unmistakable New York City locations — as benchmarks of post-Catskills, post-Lenny Bruce Jewish humor. But Allen’s hold on his fiefdom is now beyond tenuous.

It’s been a decade since his last great comedy of (bad) manners, “Deconstructing Harry.” He left his New York base to make three straight movies in London (the sibling crime drama “Cassandra’s Dream” opens around Thanksgiving, on the eve of his 72nd birthday) and he’s currently shooting in Spain. Although it’s too early to write Allen off, it’s also clear that he hasn’t connected with younger audiences in a long time. So let’s play a parlor game: Who’s the next Woody Allen?

Zach Braff, who’s admitted to channeling Woody in his “Scrubs” line readings, would love to inherit the throne. At this point, after the blink-and-you-missed-them releases of “The Last Kiss” and “The Ex” (aka “Fast Track”), I suspect the L.A.-based actor (and, let’s be fair, writer-director) would happily settle for being the next Billy Crystal (of “When Harry Met Sally”) or the next Dustin Hoffman (circa “The Graduate”). However, if Braff indeed stars in the rumored “Fletch” remake, he’ll be lucky to be the next Steve Guttenberg. (No disrespect intended to the Gooch.)

Jeffrey Blitz received an Oscar nomination for the spelling bee documentary “Spellbound,” which he parlayed into directing his original screenplay. “Rocket Science” is a droll and painful tale of a stuttering adolescent who goes out for the high school debate team at the behest of the comely captain. This isn’t precisely Allen territory, for Hal isn’t identified as Jewish and the story takes place in the New Jersey ‘burbs instead of an upscale urban center. But Hal has the loser’s persistence that defines many of the characters Woody’s played, and Blitz possesses a subtle, post-ironic sensibility that makes him a contender. “One of the hallmarks of a Jewish sense of humor,” he told me a couple of months ago, “is that you take people’s foibles and you hold them up to laugh at, but only to a certain point. You never cross a line so that you can’t connect to the heart of that person. It’s all done in sort of a loving spirit, even when there’s a lot of bite to it.”

I like that definition, although it doesn’t always fit Allen’s films. The same holds true for this snippet of wisdom from Michael Showalter, the sketch comic known for his work in the cult cable hits “The State” and “Stella.” “Jewish humor is always willing to be at the expense of the one making the joke,” he asserted two years ago, when he was promoting his deadpan postmodern indie feature, “The Baxter.” Showalter majored in semiotics at Brown but his main influence is vaudeville; he’s got a shot at Allen’s mantle if he can weave those two diverse disciplines into comedies that are accessible to a wider audience.

I would never have considered the French actress Julie Delpy for this list, even after her finely tuned work in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” But her feature debut as a writer and director, “2 Days in Paris”(opening Aug. 24), tracks endearing but mismatched lovers through a scenic urban landscape in a bittersweet Allenesque romp. Adam Goldberg, as Delpy’s boyfriend, plays a jealous, insecure, bullying, hypochondriac, half-Jewish New Yorker who would be at home in any of two dozen Allen movies. Delpy displays a knack for moving between comedy and pathos, but the question is whether she can write solid, sophisticated screenplays worthy of her sharp-tongued characters.

Goldberg’s character, as imagined by Delpy’s script, could also be inspired by veteran director Lee Friedlander’s definition of Jewish humor. “I think it’s annoying [another character] to the point where it’s funny,” she remarked in a phone conversation about her new film, “Out at the Wedding.” Friedlander’s comic universe revolves around lesbian characters, and is as circumscribed and universal as the Upper East Side enclave that provided Allen with an endless supply of grist. Nonetheless, cable television, not the arthouse, seems most amenable to her work.

The most intriguing candidate to forge a career of intelligent, dialogue-driven films about the comic possibilities of modern relationships is Jennifer Westfeldt. She first came to the attention of moviegoers as the writer and titular character of “Kissing Jessica Stein,” the 2001 indie comedy about a single, straight New York Jew who gets romantically involved with another woman. Westfeldt also scripted and stars in “Ira and Abby” (slated to open Sept. 28), which mines a New York couple’s brief courtship and misguided marriage for laughs. (Ira’s Jewish, and as the movie begins he’s been booted by his shrink of 12 years.) Westfeldt’s favorite movie of all time is “Annie Hall,” but it’s difficult to transcend influences and develop one’s voice when you have one screenplay produced every five years. Between the uncertainty of independent filmmaking and Westfeldt’s current starring role in the sitcom “Notes From the Underbelly,” it’s anybody’s guess when (or if) she can concentrate on feature filmmaking.

This, of course, is the great advantage that Woody Allen has long enjoyed. He’s had the financing and the freedom to write and direct a movie every 12 to 18 months for the last 35 years. That’s a track record that no American moviemaker will match ever again, even in an age of digital cinema. So our parlor game has been a bit of a sham: There won’t be the next Woody Allen.