Wishing Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” were something else

By Natan Dotan

Woody Allen has directed 36 films in about as many years. Among those, he’s had many hits and a few misses. These misses, though, seem to be appearing more and more often. Is he losing his touch? I sure hope not. I also “sure hoped not” after walking out of 2001’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and again after last year’s Hollywood Ending. This year’s offering, Anything Else, is far from one of Allen’s best; this time, though, I was only slightly disappointed walking out of the theater. I felt the same kind of disappointment a lotto player might feel whenever his ticket comes up short by just one number: you always hope, but never really expect to win.

Anything Else is the story of comedy writer Jerry Falk’s (Jason Biggs) relationship with his eccentric, often insane, girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci). Woody Allen plays Falk’s 60-year-old friend and would-be mentor David Dobel, also a struggling comedy writer, who has trouble controlling his temper. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, conversations between Falk and Dobel, and therapists’ couches. It’s a simple story that relies mostly on the absurdity of characters’ behavior for laughs.

Most of what’s interesting about this film grows out of Falk and Dobel’s relationship. Dobel offers Falk ambivalent wisdom, in the form of hackneyed jokes, as the young Falk tries to navigate his relationship with the unfaithful, neurotic, and, due to Christina Ricci, often annoying Amanda. Had Ricci or Biggs delivered the material with some subtlety, their relationship might have been the center of the viewers’ attention, but it’s not. This film’s no Annie Hall. Although Biggs plays a stereotypical Woody Allen character, what he brings to the screen feels like a muted agglomeration of some of Allen’s past—often excellent—male leads. Biggs is able to copy Hugh Grant’s flirtatious stare from Small Time Crooks, and to borrow Allen’s fast-talking neurosis, but he does it all with an accent. This kind of speech isn’t Biggs’ native language, so lines that with good delivery would be surefire fall flat.

What’s most outstanding about Anything Else may be Allen’s choice of cast. While in the recent past Allen has consistently chosen extraordinary ensembles of talented actors, the cast of Anything Else is far greener than what we’re used to. If Allen was bent on helping launch future generations of actors, couldn’t he have chosen more carefully? Just as Amanda nonchalantly tells Falk that during an affair, “I was thinking of you,” I found myself thinking of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire instead of Biggs and Ricci.

The film does have a few redeeming qualities, though. Danny DeVito is quite good as Falk’s obsessive literary agent, and Stockard Channing pleases as Amanda’s reckless, oblivious mother, Paula. Channing and DeVito are able to successfully portray Allen’s eccentric characters, yet they save the film from monotony. Their presence provides the bizarreness of the group of people in which Falk finds himself, making the film, at its heart, the story of a normal guy surrounded by weirdos. “Your friends are like the cast of a Fellini movie,” says Allen’s character in Manhattan. While Anything Else is a far cry from a Fellini movie, one gets the sense that this might not be too far from what Allen was aiming for.

Anything Else’s cinematography is another saving grace. Mellow nighttime lighting from movie theatre marquees and warmly lit conversations make the film pleasant to watch, even when Christina Ricci isn’t. Woody Allen’s patient, dialogue-based scenes are an extremely welcome break from today’s manic camera.

One of the film’s greatest virtues is that it was directed by Woody Allen. The jazz-standard heavy soundtrack, the New York City scenery, a cameo by Diana Krall. For $8.50, we get what we’d expect from Allen, and there’s almost something soothing in this continuity. It’s because the film doesn’t offer anything else—nothing new or imaginative—that the viewers’ hopes are lost. Even the writing seems a bit thinner than usual; this movie simply has fewer jokes. Thankfully, in Anything Else, Allen still manages to give just enough to remind us of what his films can sometimes be.