As someone who used to look forward to the next Woody Allen movie the way others look forward to Halloween or Christmas, it's downright painful to use adjectives like "irritating" and "lethargic" to describe his latest, but such is the case. Anything Else (2003), like a lot of Allen's recent work, breaks almost no new ground, with the writer-director-actor revisiting, for the second and third time around, characters and situations and jokes done better before. When Allen began making movies like Interiors (1978) and Stardust Memories (1980), the joke was people urging him to make more movies like the "early, funny ones." But now that's come to pass. And I'm not talking about comedy relics like Bananas (1971) here. I'm talking about consistently good movies, made during Allen's most experimental period: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992) to name but two. Even lesser but still undervalued efforts like Another Woman (1988) and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) seem like classics when compared with virtually anything Allen has cranked out over the past decade.
In his early films especially, Allen freely admits he basically stole his persona from that of Bob Hope. The resemblance is pretty uncanny. Look at a classic Hope movie like My Favorite Brunette or Son of Paleface with a Woody Allen picture like Sleeper and the similarities are striking. Sadly, it might also be said then that Woody Allen has entered his Boy, Did I Get the Wrong Number! stage, moving fast toward Cancel My Reservation.
Perhaps that's too harsh, but for a director who for more than two decades was always trying new things, admirably risking the alienation of both his audience and critics, Allen seems to have resigned himself to production-line comedy.
There are a couple of fresh ideas in Anything Else, but not enough to sustain its almost grueling 109-minute running time. Zelig (1983) ran 40 minutes shorter yet had three times as many laughs and twice as much insight.
Anything Else stars Jason Biggs as a rising comedy writer, Jerry Falk, saddled but nevertheless obsessed with a neurotic, would-be free-spirited actress (Christina Ricci). He loves her, in spite of the fact that she's impossible to live with: she is demanding, pretentious, completely self-absorbed, and is only slightly less addicted to drugs than her coke-snorting, lounge-singing mom (Stockard Channing). But, of course, he finds her adorable if infuriating. Add to that, Falk's therapy sessions are leading nowhere, and his desperately manipulative agent (Danny De Vito) has become a dead weight to his career. His only solace is David Dobel (Allen), a struggling fellow writer making ends meet working as a high school teacher. Dobel is a paranoid, but his experience and common sense steer Jerry into gradually comprehending his many dead-end relationships.
Allen's characters have always sounded like so many Woody Allens. In his early films with Diane Keaton, for instance, the two actors often sounded like two Woody Allens talking to one another. But here, Allen is clearly passing the baton, as it were, to Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci, with the two playing variations of Allen and Keaton's roles in Manhattan (he the comedy writer who wants to write an existential novel, she the infuriating neurotic lover) and it doesn't work. The writing isn't as sharp, and Biggs has neither Allen's comic presence nor his superb timing. He's a big blank, and this proves fatal to the picture's already marginal script. Allen's reactions to a character so intensely irritating as Ricci's might have been priceless, but Biggs just sits there; he's not funny, and she ends up dominating their every scene together. His ineffectualness gives Ricci nothing to play off of; instead of recalling Keaton's vaguely likeable nut case in Manhattan, Ricci's character comes off only as insufferable, a character guaranteed to have you grinding your teeth in no time.
For further evidence of Biggs inability to overcome Allen's less than stellar material, look no further than Channing and De Vito, two veteran actors who fashion their characters to their own image, even though these, too, are basically variations of characters we've seen before. Biggs's big scene with De Vito is likewise ruined because while De Vito is giving his all, Biggs just inexpressively stands there like a schmuck.
The picture's saving grace is Allen's character and his scenes with Biggs, the experienced older writer and the aimless up and comer. Allen has perhaps given up onscreen romances with beautiful women one-third his age, and his scenes with Biggs have almost a sweetness about them. He regards himself as an elder statesman of comedy, but his intensely and increasingly paranoid view of the world eventually put his life in danger. It's in these scenes where the film finally comes to life; just as Bowling for Columbine nailed America's culture of fear, Allen expresses this same paranoia through his familiar screen nebbish, and the result is both funny and unexpectedly disturbing. These short scenes are so good and so surprising, it's a shame they're wasted in such an otherwise bland comedy.
Video & Audio
Anything Else is notable as Allen's first 'scope film since Manhattan. Frankly, DP Darius Khondji, who shot, among other things, City of Lost Children (1995), doesn't have much to work with visually compared with Gordon Willis's striking cinematography for the earlier picture. The DVD looks fine, though, standard for a recent big studio release. Perhaps fearing 5.1 tampering of the many standards that dot his soundtracks, Anything Else is presented in standard Dolby Digital mono.
The only extras are detailed cast and crew biographies, more than one usually sees for this sort of thing, and production notes that read like they were transcribed straight out of a presskit.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.