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Fecund Woody Allen rarely lets a year go by without
offering another glimpse into his world of New York angst and irony--the classic clown
whose giddy surface of laughter expresses a disillusioned view of a world that never
measures up. With his now familiar opening titles of simple white lettering on a black
background and his favored music (Dixieland or Billie Holiday--American jazz standards),
Allen sets an upbeat mood as he settles into a new set of variations on his old themes.
It's a chancy strategy, one that seems to have limited new creativity or growth in this
old master. He runs the risk of his films becoming what a line in Anything Else
describes as "a giant 'so what'?" Finally, at nearly 70, acknowledging he should no longer play
romantic leads, Allen uses Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) as his alter ego here. Falk is a young
writer, making a living writing comedy, but working on the Great American Novel--naturally
it's about "a godless world, an empty universe, and human suffering." Allen
stays in the picture, casting himself as Falk's friend and mentor, David Dobel, a high
scool teacher who writes comedy as a sideline.
Anything Else has the broad sweep of a (slightly delayed)
coming-of-age film, with the naive Falk slowly realizing (with Dobel's help) how he let's
himself be used and manipulated by the people in his life. His girlfriend and flatmate,
Amanda (Christina Ricci), is an immature nymphet, utterly self-absorbed, selfish and
inconsiderate. Amanda's mother, Paula (Stockard Channing), is the perfect mother to
explain her obnoxious daughter, with the same traits, albeit without the eating disorders.
She's intrusive, assertive, and living somewhere outside of reality.
Falk's agent, Harvey (Danny DeVito) milks Falk for far more than
standard commissions and repeatedly uses the same tired sales pitches (funny the first
time). And Falk's analyst sits in his chair, stone-faced as he listens to Falk's
quandaries, never once offering anything but the vapidities of non-directive therapy,
answering questions with "How do you feel about that?" Allen's
hostility to shrinks is palpable throughout.
There's a goodly helping of Allen's zingers throughout the movie,
although some might find that there aren't quite enough to keep the 108 minute running
time sufficiently lively. Jerry is a likable character, but he's placed in the position of
straight-man in the center of the action. It's hard to believe this character writes
comedy. Biggs is a charmer and has Allen's intonations and cadences down to a tee.
On the other hand, Ricci's character is drawn so unpleasantly that it's
hard to see why Jerry puts up with her manipulative behaviors and sexual withholding.
Ricci has an awful lot of time on screen and mostly induces a desire to slap her face.
Unfortunately, nobody does. The character unbalances the film, weighs down its humor, and
makes it seem a lot longer than it is. It's hard to say how much of the responsibility to
pin on the writing, the direction, or her acting.
But Allen gives himself enough time on screen to make the Dobel
character fun and quirky and, at least for his fans, there's plenty of Allen-schtick to
enjoy. "I feel like committing suicide, but I've got so many problems, that wouldn't
solve them all," couldn't be anything but an Allen line. He makes direct observations
("Shrinks can't help you. Life is what it is." and "Work gives the illusion
of meaning. Sex gives the illusion of continuity.") that fly by almost too quickly.
He provides a line to Biggs like, "There was something compelling in your
apathy," that is pointed and very funny at the same time. And Dobel, as he teaches
Jerry to take charge, himself demonstrates in a funny sequence that taking charge is
sometimes an inappropriate and counter-productive strategy.
- Arthur Lazere