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It’s not him

It’s a seemingly innocuous question.

“How are you?” Larry David is asked.

But this being the man who stars on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as a kind of professional curmudgeon, the man who co-authored “Seinfeld,” the most testy and enigmatic sitcom in television history, the reply that comes firing back is, one might say, refreshingly candid.

“I guess I’m OK, you know?” says David, taking a seat in a Beverly Hills hotel room, in a tone that suggests that, well, frankly, he’d rather be doing something else, somewhere else. Deactivating land mines in the Sahara, perhaps, or herding hungry tenants at an alligator farm.

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So, uh, doesn’t he enjoy doing publicity interviews, fielding endless, repetitive questions from entertainment reporters about “Whatever Works,” the new Woody Allen comedy in which David stars as an almost pathologically cantankerous former Columbia University physicist?

“No, I don’t!” David says, breaking loudly into laughter. “It’s not the aspect of show business that I love.”

Make no mistake, though: David does love show business. And though he insists that he really is the neurotic, obnoxiously outspoken character he plays on the award-winning “Curb,” in person David comes across as a decidedly milder, more genteel and more vulnerable human being than his typical on-camera persona.

The thing is, David explains, cranky people are simply funnier than happy people.

“Positive is not funny,” he says emphatically. “Nobody laughs at positive, ‘What a beautiful day it is!’ or how many friends I have, how many people love me. There’s nothing funny about that at all. But there’s funny in the negative. When you speak in negative terms, the more negative, the funnier it is. Hence, the funny crank.”

“Negative” certainly is a fitting description of Boris Yellnikoff, David’s character in “Whatever Works,” which opens in theaters Friday. A divorced, disgruntled, self-styled genius who once almost won a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, Boris revels in believing that he alone can perceive the desolate meaningless of existence. He scorns most ordinary human contact, apart from a few friends who tolerate his ravings, and has withdrawn into a kind of smug loathing of those people he feels don’t meet his own superior intellectual standards -- all 7 billion of them.

But his ornery, orderly worldview gets turned upside down when a young runaway, Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), turns up at his New York apartment one night, begging for a place to sleep. After letting her in, against his better judgment, Boris finds himself caught up in a web of intersecting lives, needs and yearnings, including those of Melody’s conventional-minded Southern mom (Patricia Clarkson) and conservative, Bible-thumping father (Ed Begley Jr.). As the story progresses, Boris discovers that, for better or worse, humanity is bound together by a different kind of String Theory than the one he taught at Columbia.

David says that when Allen initially offered him the role of Boris, he wasn’t sure he could handle it. “The hardest part about it really was memorizing the material for me. I’m not a good memorizer. Still don’t have the Gettysburg Address down.”

Protestations of insecurity, cloaked in false modesty, aren’t uncommon from Hollywood stars who’ve landed plum movie roles.

But coming from David you believe it, especially when he offers this anecdote about hearing his mother’s voice while he was contemplating whether to accept Allen’s offer:

“The whole time I was doing ‘Seinfeld’ she would call me up and she would go -- and this is when the show was like number one, the number one show in the country -- she would call me up [David affects a quavering, over-anxious maternal voice], ‘Do they like you, Larry? Do they think you’re doing a good job? They must like you, otherwise they would fire you, wouldn’t they?! You wouldn’t still be there if they didn’t like you!’ ”

“I kinda go, ‘Yeah, yeah, Mom, don’t worry, they like me.’

“So I was thinking, you know, with my mother’s voice ringing in my head, ‘Well, if he [Allen] doesn’t like me, then he’ll just get rid of me.’ But he reassured me; he said he thought that it would be a stretch for me, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. So I said OK.”

Actually, this was David’s third film with Allen. He had a tiny part in “Radio Days” (1987) where “all you got was my bald head” in an aerial shot. A couple of years later, in Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” segment from “New York Stories” (1989), David appeared in a brief scene in which Allen’s character goes searching for his overbearing mother, who has strangely disappeared.

David says he didn’t hear from Allen again until the director sent him the “Whatever Works” screenplay with a cover letter attached.

“And I thought the script was brilliant,” David says. “But I had my doubts as to whether or not I could do it. Because it’s not the kind of thing I normally do. I generally just play myself.”

So who, exactly, is that?

Wood, David’s costar in “Whatever Works,” sees a contrast between the David she performed with on camera and the one she glimpses in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“It actually shocks me now,” she says. “I go back and I watch the show, and I hear these things coming out of Larry’s mouth, and I’m like, ‘Whoa! That was dirty! Larry!’ Because he always seemed so kind of shy.”

Clarkson, the Emmy-winning actor who appeared in Allen’s previous film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” sees a similar division in David. Perhaps it’s the split that T.S. Eliot famously called the one between “the man who suffers and the mind that creates.”

“I think he is far more vulnerable in person,” Clarkson says. “And I saw that vulnerability on the set. I saw the struggle in him, which I found moving at times, this extraordinary man, this man of unparalleled accomplishments in the writing, and the TV, world. A man who single-handedly changed the fate of television in some ways, television as we know it.”

David allows that there are major differences between Boris and his semi-autobiographical “Curb” character. If the latter could be diagnosed as borderline misanthropic, the former has the manner of a pit bull with Tourette’s syndrome.

“My character on ‘Curb’ is really normal compared to this guy, I think. My character on ‘Curb,’ he wants sex, he wants to be loved, he seeks human contact. He’s a much better dresser than Boris. And you know he’s not quite as out there. He’s a little more human.”

But as David talks on, he suddenly takes note of one of those strange little ironies that sometimes occur when life imitates art and art imitates angst.

In the most recent season of “Curb,” David’s long-suffering wife Cheryl finally leaves him, an event precipitated by her husband’s irate preoccupation with fixing his TiVo while Cheryl is on the phone telling him that the airplane she’s on is caught in severe turbulence and likely to crash.

David’s character now finds himself with a new romantic interest, played by Vivica A. Fox, and living with her family, the Blacks, an African American clan of New Orleans hurricane refugees who in a previous episode David reluctantly agreed to let live with him. Like Boris in “Whatever Works,” David’s “Curb” character has overcome his God-given surliness and opened his door, and his life, to new possibilities, at least temporarily.

“It’s a coincidence,” David says of the parallel, “and I hadn’t thought of it before.”

David isn’t tipping his hand about what the next season will hold for “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” so devotees will have to wait and see whether some of the que sera sera spirit that infuses “Whatever Works” permeates the sitcom. Does David think it’s possible for such a prickly, isolated person as Boris to change fundamentally? Probably not, he says.

“Long-term relationships between men and women I think are doomed,” he says. “So I don’t have high hopes for them. For him. For most people.”

Why not?

“Personal experience!” (David’s 17-year marriage recently ended in divorce.)

“I don’t see how people change all that much,” he says. “If I had a near-death experience I’d probably be shook up for a day, and then in two days I’m sure everything would go back to exactly the way it was. I’d be bothered by one thing or another.”

--

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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