Philip Roth and Woody Allen: Have I Got a Girl for You!

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Okay, here's what I want to know: What's with Philip Roth and Woody Allen?

I only ask after trotting to my local movie palace some months back for Allen's latest astringent 92-minute laffer, Whatever Works, and paging diligently these recent days through Roth's newest probe of a novel, The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin, 140pp., $22).

Both opuses (opi?) concern a man of a certain age (or, you might say, a bladder of a certain age) energetically and relentlessly pursued by a much younger woman. In Whatever Works Boris Yellnikoff is 60-ish; in The Humbling Simon Axler is 70-ish. Furthermore, for Axler, the pursuer is an avowed lesbian called Pegeen Mike Stapleford. (Note that Pegeen Mike is also the name of the barmaid who falls for the comically mendacious title figure in John Millington Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Roth undoubtedly uses the "Pegeen Mike" to underline the lesbian angle with the "Mike" part but perhaps also to suggest that either Axler is a playboy or that Pegeen Mike is a playgirl.)

You might say that the Whatever Works/Humbling plot similarities here are coincidental, but both men have used these narrative thrusts before. Indeed, they've used them so often you could suggest that once again, they're falling back on them.

I'm bothered by this for several reasons. To begin, I'm questioning why Roth or Allen need resort to the stale subject matter when any literate person conversant with their work(s) will quickly concede they're both extremely creative artists and capable of better than they've imparted now. It's hardly cavalier to say they've each produced more than one masterpiece during extended and prolific (maybe too prolific?) careers.

Along with other devoted readers, I consider Roth's American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain a trilogy and as such the most important cumulative fictional report on America in the second half of the 20th century. Where Allen is concerned, I'd call his Annie Hall and Manhattan the most accomplished domestic films of the 1970's (okay, a tie with Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather entries). I'd label Allen'sCrimes and Misdemeanors the most trenchant stateside film of the 1990's.

Yet, septuagenarians Roth and Allen today are producing works it's difficult not to describe as clichés. What could be more commonplace than a pair of men individually obsessed with proving that male elders remain attractive to their female juniors?

With Allen--now married for some time to the significantly younger Soon-Yi Previn, practically his erstwhile step-daughter--it's an abiding preoccupation. Among other movies he's made where an older man takes up with a younger woman is, of course, the above-mentioned Manhattan. Roth--who has apparently dated former Allen inamorata Mia Farrow (she married Frank Sinatra when she was 21 and he was 50)--has previously covered the tired topic in The Human Stain and The Dying Animal.

Furthermore, Roth's narrative twist--a committed lesbian reneging on her previous choice to woo a man--immediately strikes a reader as one of the prime fantasies heterosexual men cherish; that their enviable Macho Quotient is all a gay woman requires to switch her sexuality. Incidentally, in Manhattan, the protagonist's wife leaves him for a woman and then writes a scathing tell-all about her decision. It's a turn of events that the flick's Isaac sees as degrading and impossible to reverse.

To their credit, both Roth and Allen come to their senses before the final print or celluloid fade-out. Axler's Pegeen Mike goes back to women. Boris's Melodie St. Ann Celestine changes her tune and hooks up permanently with an age-appropriate swain. As she does, an echo of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita--in which the precocious title figure leaves stalker Humbert Humbert for a younger man--can be heard speaking its society-approved name.

You might say that in sending out these matching oeuvre additions, Roth and Allen hew to a time-honored literary tradition: writing about what they know. But it's a sobering thought. Surely, they know about a few other issues as well. Why not write about those? Roth has said his topic is the reality of aging as opposed to what he sees as the "Golden Years" myth. (A video interview in which he makes the assertion runs with Jesse Kornbluth's review of The Humbling ) Still, must Roth embed his railing at later-years indignities in an older-man-younger-woman construct?

There's got to be another way that doesn't have us Roth and Allen fans speculating that this very minute our too-often-like-minded culture heroes are readying works about what happens when an even older man has a romance with an even younger woman. Some of us might even be wondering if Roth and Allen are collaborating on a project about older-men-younger-women double-dating.

Anyway, there you have it. And now for a possible follow-up column. How's 'bout: What's with Mia Farrow?