An Oral History of Larry David’s ‘Sour Grapes’
Sour Grapes was a movie with big expectations. In 1996, Larry David had left Seinfeld after its seventh season to move on to something new, and before returning to write Seinfeld’s finale and creating Curb Your Enthusiasm, he gave filmmaking a try with a darkly comedic script about backstabbing cousins.
The movie begins in Atlantic City, where cousins Evan and Richie Maxwell had gone for a weekend of gambling with their respective girlfriends. At the end of the night, both are down about a grand each, and Richie (Craig Bierko) asks Evan (Steven Weber) if he has any quarters for one last pull on a slot machine. Evan gives him his remaining 50 cents, and Richie combines that with his own remaining 25 cents and proceeds to win more than $400,000.
From there, an escalating story about jealousy and bitterness tears their lives apart. Given that two of the three winning quarters were his, Evan thinks he deserves half the money. Richie disagrees, offering Evan a paltry three percent, which so enrages Evan, a doctor, that he gives Richie a fake cancer diagnosis to mess with his head. It does exactly that, too: Richie is so worried that his mother will be devastated by his death that he gives a vagrant a key to her house in the hopes she’ll have a heart attack and die before she learns the news.
That’s just a small sample of the madness in Sour Grapes, which not surprisingly has a heavy Seinfeldian sensibility, with two characters who are so uncaring and selfish that they almost never seem to get along. Despite the familiar tone, though, the movie underperformed. It pulled in just $123,000 at the box office and critics panned it, with Roger Ebert opining, “Larry David, who wrote and directed Sour Grapes, apparently thinks people are amused by cancer, accidental castration, racial stereotypes and bitter family feuds.” Eventually, even David would take aim at Sour Grapes, occasionally making little jokes about it on Curb Your Enthusiasm, like when he begs Cheryl to stop loaning out the VHS of Sour Grapes to her friends.
It was a disappointing result for the film’s stars, who remain friends to this day and still have fond memories from the movie. “Sour Grapes was the funniest script I’ve ever read,” Bierko says via a Zoom call with me and Weber, who adds, “We were pinching ourselves over being in it.”
I recently assembled this virtual meeting between Bierko and Weber to mark the 25th anniversary of Sour Grapes, which falls on April 17th — not that anyone is marking the occasion but the three of us.
The Sour Grapes Ripen
Craig Bierko, Richie Maxwell in Sour Grapes: Back then, Seinfeld was my one respite the entire week. It was the only thing I watched — that and Letterman — so I really wanted this. For my audition, I was the second person in, and as soon as I started talking, Larry started laughing.
I think it was me who was cast first because, when I heard they got Weber opposite me, I thought, “We’re fine.” In 1990, I had done an episode of Wings, and I’d mostly hung out with him. So we knew each other, but more importantly, I knew he was someone who could work easy. Many of my comic heroes — like Jack Benny and Bob Hope — could work easy, and I’d noticed that about Steven on Wings. When I heard it was him I’d be working with, I knew I could go anywhere with him.
Steven Weber, Evan Maxwell in Sour Grapes: Sour Grapes was a hot script. This being Larry David’s first project after Seinfeld, the script was being handed around to a lot of actors way bigger than Craig and I. The name Steve Martin came up and others like that who wanted these roles. For some reason, I auditioned for one of the roles even though it was my understanding that it would go to someone else. I originally wanted the role that went to Craig, but I managed to get a callback for my role.
I don’t know why they chose us. Maybe they did it because we were cheaper? Maybe it was less risky to have actors of less renown to tackle what was Larry’s first film? I’m just guessing, but I like to think we embodied whatever it is he wanted to do and I genuinely think his emphasis was on the material, rather than the name value of it. I also have to believe we were good enough to do what Larry wanted.
Bierko: I think there was a little bit of insecurity around “this is my first movie,” but I also think he didn’t want to worry about “Roseanne won’t come out of her trailer,” kind of stuff. Because Steven’s part was originally written for Roseanne.
Weber: (Laughs) All the vagina jokes were still in there at the time.
The Larry Davidian Process
Weber: Larry was very open about it being his first time directing, and so, he had people around him who felt free enough to give him suggestions. I often found that to be a pain in the ass — he had a vision, he obviously had a sophisticated comic sensibility, and while he may have been uncomfortable helming a film for the first time, he absolutely did have a point-of-view and knew what he wanted to do.
We shot mostly in New York City. It’s fun to shoot in your hometown. It’s great being on the street and feeling like you’ve made it. We also shot for a couple of days in Atlantic City. That was strange because Atlantic City isn’t Las Vegas — it’s Atlantic City.
Bierko: I remember thinking, “If I wasn’t making a movie here, I’d want to get out.” I’ve been there since, and wished that I was making a movie.
Weber: We shot all night because there was less traffic inside the casino. At one point, somebody reached across the barricade and said something fairly benign, I can’t recall what, and Larry screamed at this guy, “What the fuck!? What are you bothering my actors for?!?! Get the fuck out of here!” He really went bananas. It was great.
It’s funny, people think that he’s like the characters he portrays — curmudgeonly and pissed off — but he’s really not. He obviously knows how to tap into that vein, but he’s actually one of the most well-adjusted multi-billionaire comedians I’ve ever met. He’s very cool and collaborative and loves to laugh. He has a sense of joy that you wouldn’t associate with him.
Bierko: Whatever image he’s created for himself is exactly the opposite of who he is. He’s a confident, funny, laconic, easygoing guy. Unless he loses one of his little notebooks, then he’ll shut down the set.
That did happen one day — he lost a book, and he shut down the set. This was at Culver Studios, and how much do you think it cost to shut the entire set down while he’s looking for a brown book? He didn’t think twice about it. We turned over everything — I don’t know if he ever found it.
Another story about working with Larry: I thought I might get fired on the first day. It was lunch, and out of everyone there, Larry sits right across from me and goes, “You know what?” My first thought was, “Oh no. Not from this. I can’t be fired by Larry David. Not on day one!” Then he goes, “I’m going to start chewing with my mouth closed. I’m 50!” He starts eating and chewing with his mouth open, and he’s like, “Look at this! Look at this! It’s ridiculous!” It was a classic Larry David bit.
Lots of Scenery-Chewing and a Little Autofellatio
Weber: I love the scene where I bump into Craig outside the hospital, and we devolve into pointing — “I’m pointing!” “I’ll point too!” That’s one of my favorites to watch, and over the years, when Craig and I have sent each other little videos and things, I’ve sent that a couple of times.
Bierko: In the scene where Steven gave me a fake cancer diagnosis, he got to be really mean and I got to be terrified while he was giving me the news, but I was afraid I was going too big. I remember him telling me, “The only way to score with this is to go Gleason.” I was afraid I’d be thrown out of show business, especially since Steven was being so brilliant being small.
Weber: What? We’re both very big in that movie. You can see us from the space station a lot of the time.
Bierko: (Laughs) Us and the Great Wall of China.
Weber: It was big, but it seemed to work in the world. I remember Larry and I cracking up with appreciation of what you were doing.
Bierko: You know, I had this theory that this movie was a bunch of scenes that couldn’t be in Seinfeld strung together. Like George giving his parents’ key to a homeless person, knowing it’ll give them a heart attack.
These two characters are sociopaths. I know my character had a bit of that Seinfeldian sociopathy, because there’s that one point where the cops come and they ask, “Do you know anyone in a jogging suit who would have been by your mother’s house?” I say, “No,” then I look over at Robin Peterman, who’s playing my girlfriend, and I say “Honey?” That was something Larry put in at the last minute. Larry said, “What if he put it all on her?” Their whole life together, and my character throws her under the bus in a second. It was pretty fucking hilarious.
Weber: One thing about Craig’s character in the movie is that he can blow himself, which I think was the first time a character could do that in a movie. It was a big-screen event!
Bierko: We were pretty confident during filming. Steven and I kept thinking that this was small and dark and weird, like Where’s Poppa? or The Producers. But we’d both been in the business long enough at that point to know a lot of things have to come together for that to happen. That said, perhaps the best sign that you’re not in one of those movies is to think, “This is one of those movies.” It was fun though. It was about making Larry laugh, making each other laugh and making sure we got whatever the scene was.
Weber: After a while in acting, it becomes a bit like a conveyor belt. It wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia we were making. It was one long series of sketches. It was a job, but it was a good job — a fun one. In a lot of ways, we were pinching ourselves over being in this movie.
That’s why the weird thing about Sour Grapes is why it wasn’t more widely appreciated. It didn’t have a life afterwards. That’s been a mystery that I have some theories about, but I don’t know for sure. Larry, in a way, was already starting his next chapter, which led into Curb, which was a post-Seinfeld rebirth. One thing is… Look, I fucking love this dude and I worked with him afterwards, but when Sour Grapes became a punchline on Curb, that was a bit of a blow to me. It hurt me a little bit.
Bierko: Before Sour Grapes, I found a really great shrink named Phil Stutz. He worked with a lot of actors and how we work at our worst points and I’d learned to limit my expectations, but you couldn’t avoid the fact that it wasn’t doing well.
Weber: I know some reviews invoked Seinfeld.
Bierko: Or they mentioned that we were “TV actors,” which I knew was going to come up.
Weber: They hammered us for that, which I thought was just lazy and facile. There was still a divide back then between the TV and movie worlds. Ultimately, I do possess disappointment around this film and its lack of appreciation because it’s frustrating to be a part of something that was positive and fun and funny, and for it to be invisible — it was kind of a drag. It was hard, but you move on. It wasn’t crippling.
Bierko: I still get disappointed about it, and sometimes I wonder if I was the right bit of casting for it. But Steven and I were in the trenches together, and I took so much joy in the idea of being a part of a team — it’s something I really treasure. Over the years, we’ve gone back and forth with all these crazy ideas. Like, we have a running joke about wanting to remake Zardoz together. Or, years can go by and you can pick up the phone and just pick up where you left off. I was particularly touched a couple of years ago when Steven called. It wasn’t the happiest call, but he just wanted to talk.
Weber: When I murdered that grandmother?
Bierko: Well, I didn’t want to say anything, but didn’t she have it coming?
Weber: Anyway, please try to revive this movie.
Bierko: We’re coming back for the Grape-quel. Grape-quel? Maybe the Sour-quel? Yeah, Sour-quel. That’s better.