September 13, 2007
Film: Opposites attract—and seek therapy—in ‘Ira & Abby’
Jennifer Westfeldt is gracious, even humble, in accepting the compliment that starts this interview. She has been told that a recent essay on cineastes -- "Jewish Humor, After Woody" -- called her "the most intriguing candidate to forge a career of intelligent, dialogue-driven films about the comic possibilities of modern relationships." |
In other words, she may be the next Woody Allen.
And "Ira and Abby," the romantic comedy she wrote, executive produced and stars in, may be, well, reminiscent of "Annie Hall." It's about a neurotic, heavily analyzed Jewish young Manhattanite (Chris Messina) who falls in love with a spacey, sexy, emotionally vulnerable and thoroughly non-Jewish health club worker (Westfeldt). They marry, which is only the beginning of their relationship difficulties.
The film debuts theatrically Sept. 14, after winning the Audience Award at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival. Westfeldt previously starred in and wrote with Heather Juergensen the film, "Kissing Jessica Stein."
On television, the 36-year-old Jewish-raised, Yale-educated actress stars in the sitcom, "Notes From the Underbelly." On Broadway, she recently was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in a revival of "Wonderful Town."
But while she is gracious, she isn't quite buying the Allen comparisons just yet.
"Some of his early romantic comedies are among my favorites," Westfeldt says of Allen, "along with 'The Apartment' by Billy Wilder. So when it came time to write, my natural voice was as a romantic comedy writer.
"But I identify myself as an actor primarily," she explains. "Both of my films have come out of my attempt to control the type of role I can play and want to explore as an artist. At the same time, I don't feel tremendously confident as a writer."
Besides, she points out, "Ira and Abby" isn't specifically Jewish. Not only is the word "Jewish" never uttered or discussed, but Ira's last name -- Black -- is somewhat ambiguous. His cultural identity is more inferred by his milieu and personality traits than by anything overt in the screenplay.
"This is maybe where the Woody Allen question comes in," Westfeldt says. "The film is set in the New York cultural climate of the classic overthinker. And that is something familiar to me in my life in Manhattan. I certainly have a lot of smarty-pants friends. They are so inside their heads they can be overwhelmed by their own brains and sometimes get paralyzed thinking through every last possibility."
Westfeldt's familiarity with that world began with her mother and stepfather, both Jewish and therapists working in Connecticut but with many Manhattan family and professional connections. Her father, a non-Jewish electrical engineer, left when Westfeldt was 3 and lives in Colorado. Growing up, she visited him every Christmas.
In "Ira and Abby," Westfeldt pays tribute to her mother and stepfather and their world in two ways. Ira's parents are both therapists. And among the bevy of other therapists and professionals in the film -- everyone seems to be in therapy -- are ones with names like Dr. Morris Saperstein (Jason Alexander), Dr. Rosenblum, Dr. Goldberg, Dr. Friedman, Dr. Goldman and Dr. Silverburg.
"Obviously, I'm poking fun," Westfeldt confesses. "But there are a lot of therapists in my world through my mom and stepdad, and I also have friends who see therapists and analysts. I'm sure there are a zillion therapists in New York who aren't Jewish, but based on the people in my world, that's a cultural comic riff."
In the film, Ira's parents (Judith Light and Robert Klein) are also borderline burnouts -- he, a pessimist with a mordant wit, and at one point utters, "We're old and mean and very tired." And both have had affairs that have hurt the other.
Westfeldt is quick to emphasize they are nothing like her own mother and stepfather. But there is one dialogue line that is taken from her mother. When Ira is despondent, talking to his mom on the phone, she asks with alarm if he's thinking of suicide. (He isn't.)
"That's one thing that came from my mom and from growing up with a therapist as a parent," she says. "They're so used to dealing with people in crisis and suicidal teens. They've worked in psychiatric institutes and schools for troubled teens and handled some pretty unbelievable things.
"So when I had the ups and downs of being a teenager, her reaction would be, 'Are you suicidal? Should I call a hospital?' It's an overreaction based on the kind of things they deal with everyday," she says.
The institution of marriage doesn't come off especially well in "Ira and Abby." Though the film's titular characters try it, they struggle with it. So do the film's secondary characters.
Westfeldt, it turns out, has severe doubts about marriage's viability. She and her boyfriend of more than nine years, actor Jon Hamm (AMC's "Mad Men"), live together in a house with a dog but so far have stayed unmarried.
"I'm a child of divorce," she says. "There's a crazy amount of divorce on my father's side, the non-Jewish side. Almost everyone in my dad's nuclear family has been married three times, including my dad.
"And the year I wrote this movie, I went to nine weddings, while four of my closest friends got a divorce in their late 20s," she continues. "It's always interested me that statistically, we've failed as a society with this institution, and yet nothing has evolved in the way we approach our wedding vows and ceremonies.
"If anything, it's just as sacred and idealized as ever, and people say the same things at their second wedding as at the first with no trace of irony," Westfeldt notes. "Could we find some more honest, if not as romantic, paradigm for coming together as a couple? I feel like it's worth some debate."
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