It’s part of Larry David’s self-deprecation routine to diss his own work; the comic creative has expressed his dissatisfaction with his 1998 directorial debut in a number of ways. Coming between hit comedy Seinfeld and David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s a notable blot of his copy-book, a comedy pretty much pulled from release due to adverse audience reaction. And it’s not hard to see why; perhaps over-confidence is the reason that David decided to push the boat out, but this mean-spirited collection of situational gags about money, hospitals, accidental operations, auto-fellatio and funerals narrowcasts to a specific audience keen to engage with the darker side of life. Once you’ve captured a demographic of 76 million viewers, there’s only one way to go, and Sour Grapes at least shakes off the charming insouciance of Seinfeld for good; it’s easy to see how preview and test audiences must have been appalled by the content of this film.
My recollection is that Sour Grapes was pulled in the UK with a sudden needle-scratch after being heavily trailered; the previews made a decent case, focusing on the opening gag. Two cousins, doctor Evan (Steven Weber) and show-designer Ritchie (Craig Bierko) are down on their luck on a Vegas trip until Evan lends Ritchie a couple of quarters for a fruit-machine which pays out nearly half a million dollars, money which Ritchie refuses to split. That might be enough for a sitcom half-hour, but David doubles down on venality; Evan gets some kind of revenge by misusing his position as a medic and telling Ritchie he has a fatal illness, but the chaos caused leads Evan to make some critical mistakes while operating on his patients, specifically a famous sitcom star whom he accidentally castrates…
Soup Grapes has an icy reserve that’s almost unique. There’s very few US studio comedies without any visual sight gags, and which don’t reply on familiar names and faces; a few Seinfeld cast members (library cop Bookman / Phillip Baker Hall) do pop up on the side-lines. Instead, David over-plays his hand, with too much dark quirk, far too many silly incidents, and not enough time for any of it to land; a running gag about the homeless is regrettable, even within the bounds of bad taste. There’s an extended riff on the success and relative blandness of Friends which feels too much like sour grapes on David’s part, suggesting that the vengeful behaviour featured here was very much in tune with the director’s world-view at the time.
All that said, Sour Grapes deserves its growing cult reputation; it’s an ambitious, fearless film that aims squarely at the idea of money as a corrosive moral influence. David seems like someone who would be hard work to share a winning ticket with; this really isn’t Seinfeld da Movie, but pushes things further and seeks to find a sweet spot in uncharted areas of humour that few would seek to explore. David would refine this strategy via the far superior pratfalls of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but this shonky prototype is worth a look for fans of his unique brand of humour.