Just from the names, the cast of characters who parade through Woody Allen’s “Zero Gravity,” you know in’s going to be funny. Oh, the names! The stand in for Warren Beatty is a Hollywood Adonis named Bolt Upright. Larry Fallopian is New York’s hottest art dealer. (“Fallopian,” Allen writes, “is based on the real-life Murray Vegetarian, whose reputation as a gallery owner was made when he sold a sublime Marie Laurencin watercolor of two lesbians koshering a chicken for six million dollars.”) There’s the sleazy manager Waxy Sleazeman. “Waxy,” recalls a female singer, “discovered me singing with the rock group Toxic Waste at the Burgeoning Tumor, a joint downtown.” The health food store is called The Hardened Artery.
“Zero Gravity” is Woody’s first collection of stories and essays in 15 years. Its opening dedication says a lot about what living with Woody Allen, the family man quipping around his house, must be like.
To Manzie and Bechet, our two lovely daughters who
have grown up before our eyes and used our credit
cards behind our backs.
And of course Soon-Yi—if Bram Stoker had known
you he’d have had his sequel
Some of the pieces were in The New Yorker but ten of them are new. One is revised and updated. In her foreword, Daphne Merkin compares him to the great gods of the New Yorker, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and SJ Perelman. Certainly, Woody’s pieces refer back to those titans, but also to a couple of others like Max Shulman and Jerome L. Weidman who Allen has also said he admires. Shulman, in particular, laid the groundwork for a kind of Groucho Marx like prose that bob and weaves through Allen’s; stories.
A lot of references in the pieces are to things long past, and often I had to look up words, like “afflatus.” (It doesn’t mean to inflate anything.) Woody is droll and hilarious but he’s not going to make this easy on us. Still, Miley Cyrus makes an appearance (it’s okay, Woody directed Miley in a mini-series) and so does Brady Pitt. Beatty gets a whole satirical story based on the allegation in a ridiculous book that in his life he bedded twelve thousand women. (One reports: “I’m still vibrating,” the brunette said. “He made passionate love to me while at the same time accompanying himself on the piano.”
There’s a lot of very welcome silliness. In “Udder Madness,” updated from 2010, a cow– yes, a cow– on a swanky upstate farm decides to kill a film auteur up for the weekend. This man is described as “neither a brooding cult genius nor a matinée idol but a wormy little cipher, myopic behind black-framed glasses and groomed loutishly in his idea of rural chic: all tweedy and woodsy, with cap and muffler, ready for the leprechauns.” Who does that sound like?
In “Not a Creature Was Stirring,” a proposed movie is all about mice. The pitch “centered on Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, where it seemed that a pizzeria owner was charged by police with planting mice in rival pizza shops. “We never had anything like this,” the Police Superintendent said, “where mice have been used as an instrument of crime.”
What follows is farce, high satire, long windups that end in abrupt spurts of punchlines that find you chuckling, snorting, guffawing. They take two reads sometimes, the material whizzes by so quickly, you’re not sure you’ve read it right. Allen is a humorist who has a light touch and a heavy hand at the same time. When he lands the joke, the writing has been so dense and elegant you’re just not expecting to be hit over the head with a whoopie cushion.
“Mice held up a bank?” I interrupted incredulously. “Why not?” Grossnose said. “The little rodents
caused the traditional panic that mice do, and while the women are squealing and jumping on chairs they use their teeth and paws to relieve the tellers of two million pounds.”
Hollywood, a club to which Woody has never belonged, comes in for zingers. “What are you saying?” I asked, realizing that his latest film, Kreplach Serenade, had garnered just two
Oscar nods, and not from the Academy but from inmates at Bellevue.
Kreplach Serenade? I’m making that movie immediately.
“Glancing up, I came vis-à-vis with the corpulent scrivener slash director whom I dimly
recognized as Hugh Forcemeat, a weaver of thirty-five- millimeter hallucinations that our studio had taken a flyer with several years ago, when we hired him to punch up ‘Psychotic Zombies of the Moon,’ our sequel to Buddenbrooks.“
Is there sex? Yes. A lot of it, most of it unfulfilled or incomplete. It rarely works out. There are young women, middle aged women, old women. The word ‘orgy’ is mentioned once or twice, always a punchline. None of it is to be taken seriously. (“As a boy, he had entered his parents’
bedroom during sex unannounced and caught his father wearing moose antlers.”) The narrator is too afraid of anything, it’s always the other characters that get into trouble. Woody, as he does in the movies, stands apart. He’s the ultimate observer of the ridiculous. And thank goodness for that. “Zero Gravity” is what we need right now.