I’m not ready to give up on Woody Allen. To the extent that he gets any attention at all anymore, he’s been declared washed up, out of ideas, out of touch, coasting, irrelevant. This despite his pretty terrific run of movies during the mid-‘90s: Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), and Deconstructing Harry (1997), one after the other. And it’s probably because his more recent efforts haven’t been strong at all. Even as plain old comedies (the kind everyone used to wish he’d go back to making), Hollywood Ending (2002) and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) are flabby disappointments.
Perhaps the unevenness is built into his dogged determination to turn out one movie per year. Just as sure as this practice will result in some movies that don’t quite work, it will produce at least a few more that rank alongside his best before the end of this career (which, despite or possibly because of his advancing age, is probably still some time off).
Anything Else is not that movie. It is, like its immediate predecessors, somewhat disappointing. But there are visible changes here, and perhaps it will be remembered later as a transitional point for Allen. Most visible is Allen’s supporting role. This isn’t a change per se: he’s appeared in such roles in his ensemble films (Hannah and Her Sisters ; Everyone Says I Love You). He never doesn’t play a non-Woody part, to be sure, but here he’s more comic relief than the focus.
Not that the movie particularly has a focus. Jason Biggs plays Jerry Falk, a Woody Allen-like struggling comedy writer, and Anything Else seems to be structured around his relationship with Amanda (Christina Ricci), an actress with superhuman neuroses. I say “seems to be” because the movie really has several subplots, and no main one. Falk has problems with Amanda, an inability to get rid of his smalltime manager (Danny DeVito), and a blossoming friendship with part-time writer (and fulltime conspiracy theorist) David Dobel (Allen). This material is agreeable but rarely inspired, and the movie feels scattered and overlong. The story of Jerry’s general confusion gathers some momentum late in the film, up to a fine ending (Woody always seems to have the right ending, even for his lesser works), but it takes a lot of meandering to get there.
This has become the problem du jour for early-aughts Allen. Scorpion and Ending were both unusually underwritten, as if he hadn’t bothered to give the scripts a second pass, or even a casual trim. Annie Hall (1977) remains one of the shortest Best Picture Oscar winners ever, and one of his best films besides. Anything Else, of course, would not rank alongside that film or Manhattan (1979), even if it were 90 minutes instead of 110, but it is telling that Allen’s minor films have often been his lengthiest.
Of course, in 110 minutes of Allen material, there’s bound to be some good moments, and Anything Else is no exception. Most intriguing is Allen’s performance. Freed from sustaining onscreen relationships with women half his age, he’s free to deal with funnier things, like paranoia, conspiracy theories and violence. A scene in which Dobel smashes up a car with a crowbar after some goons take his parking spot (Falk suggests retreating and writing a satiric piece, “making fun of [the goons’] foibles”) is very funny, partly because Allen is believably acting on an impulse Alvy Singer could only daydream about.
In fact, it’s tempting to say that we don’t see enough of David Dobel, or more accurately, that we see him too often in fringe conversations with Falk, rather than, say, at his day job, teaching public high school. The idea of Woody Allen (and an exaggerated, loose cannon Allen at that) teaching high school English is a funny idea, and the film leaves it at that: a funny idea.
Instead, there is a lot of Biggs as the younger Allen character. He has the right vocal cadence; the stammers and pauses feel right (indeed, he stammered through all three American Pie films), so his performance doesn’t play like an impression. Still, he retains the usual Allenesque details: he loves jazz and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As long as Allen the screenwriter is working with younger characters, why not create one who lives in the Village, Brooklyn, or Queens, or one who listens to (gasp!) rock music. Even old rock music would be fine.
Such particulars wouldn’t matter if Anything Else were a little funnier, or if its fine cast (Danny DeVito, Stockard Channing, and Jimmy Fallon all do fine in small roles) was given more room to play off one another, rather than Biggs alone. Perhaps more frustrating, the relationship between Amanda and Jerry is one-note, and while Ricci embodies a neurotic, manipulative mess with gusto, it’s a disappointing part from the writer-director with whom Dianne Weist, Diane Keaton, and Mira Sorvino have done their best work.
It’s not that Anything Else is bad, exactly. It’s just B-team Woody. I laughed and I smiled, but in the end, Anything Else does for young angst what Curse of the Jade Scorpion did for screwball comedy: it simply presents it, with occasional flair.