Going back in time by only three years, it could still be nearly guaranteed
that whatever motion picture writer-director Woody Allen concocted
would be smart, clever, insightful into some aspect of human nature,
and well worth a moviegoer's effort. Then came 2001's underwhelming
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" and 2002's "Hollywood Ending," the
worst Allen film in memory. Over the year that it took him to segue
from 2000's wonderful "Small Time Crooks" to the former movie, Allen
had been stripped of a great deal of his wit and inspiration. And
in the year it took him to segue from the former to the latter, he
had completely derailed into a bit of unintended irony, making a thoroughly
dumb and unfunny satire on how dumb the Hollywood film system is.
If "Anything Else," 2003's entry into Woody Allen's constantly increasing
filmography, is a step up from "Hollywood Ending," the space between
the two in terms of quality is smaller than it has any right to be.
An inferior redux of 1977's "Annie Hall" and, to an extent, 1979's
"Manhattan" (Allen's best picture), Allen has resorted to spinning
his wheels over the same material he made twenty years ago, only without
the heart, inspiration, and consistently witty dialogue. His characters,
once written with such great care that they felt like living and breathing
real people, are now mostly forgettable cardboard cutouts who are
at the service of the story, rather than the other way around. Because
we as the viewers do not believe in these figures onscreen, we naturally
do not care about their piddling problems and outcome. In the case
of a Woody Allen movie, this is not only truly disheartening, but
also a depressing statement on how far the great has fallen.
Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) is a nebbish, trustworthy New York comedy
writer with a fear of being alone. This last fact only can signal
trouble when he meets and falls in love with asiring actress Amanda
(Christina Ricci), a chain-smoking psychotic insecure about every
part of herself and terrified of commitment. Jerry's forthright new
friend, David Dobel (Woody Allen), urges him to drop Amanda and his
needy agent Harvey (Danny DeVito) and take control of his own life.
Although this advice does sound tempting, Jerry is unsure if he has
the courage to take the plunge.
"Anything Else," which gets its title from the notion that the unexpected
ways life turns out is just like anything else, commits the cardinal
sin of character-based films: it doesn't give us a reason to care.
The characters are thinly drawn and too cute by a half, spouting off
lines without given a chance to show any sort of depth or growth.
The unconventional romance (or lack thereof) between Jerry and Amanda
recalls a scripted play rather than Allen's usual gift for naturalism
and spontaneity. Theyespecially Amandanever feel like real people.
In turn, the viewer ends up not believing in them or taking their relationship seriously.
As is a necessity in the lead role of a Woody Allen film, Jason Biggs
(2003's "American Wedding") adopts the mannerisms and tics of Allen
himself in bringing Jerry Falk to the screen. Biggs fits well into
lighthearted fare, such as the "American Pie" series, but when called
upon to play a three-dimensional character in a film with more serious
topics at play, he is limited in what he is able to convey. The effervescent
and funny Christina Ricci (2002's "Pumpkin") has the opposite problem;
she has the range and talent to develop characters through and through,
but her Amanda is never written as anything more than a frustrating caricature.
The one element of "Anything Else" that does work is the sweet friendship
that evolves between Jerry and Dobel. As Dobel, an aging fellow comedy
writer whose life has been met with little success, Woody Allen gives
himself the majority of the best comedic lines and is well-tuned into
how to sell each one. So good are Allen and Biggs together that the
film should have been about their relationship, rather than the shallow
Biggs and Ricci one. In other supporting parts, Danny DeVito (2001's
"Heist") is wasted, save for a humorous climactic scene in a restaurant,
and Stockard Channing (2002's "Life or Something Like It") is even
more ill-used as Amanda's free-spirited mother, Paula.
In his third disappointing motion picture in as many years, "Anything
Else" should be a sign to Woody Allen that he needs to slow his pace
down and realize quality is more important than quantity. Instead
of replaying the same storylines and characters, only with a decreasing
degree of clarity, Allen should refocus his attention on originality.
The thoroughly unconvincing "Anything Else" doesn't have a speck of
this vital cinematic ingredient. It doesn't have much else, either.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman