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Anything Else

Sharing His Pain
Woody Allen Stumbles Further Down The Path of Failure
By Cole Smithey

After losing a wide spectrum of his once-loyal audience due to public scandal around his personal life, the quality of Woody Allen’s films has steadily declined since it peaked with "Deconstructing Harry" in 1998. "Anything Else" represents low ebb for the comic filmmaker famous for transmuting the work of Ingmar Bergman into New York centric comedies full of neurosis based humor. Jason Biggs plays Jerry Falk, an upstart comedy writer, anachronistically inspired by Allen’s stint as a joke writer for Sid Caesar’s old TV program, who serves as Woody’s alter ego and comic apprentice in the story. Allen plays David Dobel, an aging paranoid comic writer who mentors Falk in all matters of love, life and commitment. Stilted artificial dialogue, direct-to-camera narration and strained performances exacerbate the film’s idiosyncratic attitudes toward prejudice, ego, privacy and obsession. "Anything Else" could easily be called "a feel-bad movie for all occasions."

The movie opens with Dobel (Allen) lecturing Falk (Biggs) as the two sit on a bench in Central Park. The scene mirrors a perceived real association between the director and the young actor, and carries an uncomfortable gravity of preachy defensiveness on Allen’s part. When Falk faces the camera to speak directly to the audience about the many and varied charms of his admittedly problematic girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci), you know that this is not going to be a comfortable movie.

Falk's narration eventually speeds us backward to the time when he fell in love with Amanda at first sight, while still with his live-in girlfriend, and Amanda was in the company of her beau Bob (Jimmy Fallon). The two couples go on a double date where Falk shamelessly fawns over Amanda, and soon thereafter girl number one exits the relationship, making room for Amanda and her obnoxious mother Paula (Stockard Channing) to infiltrate Falk’s small apartment.

Amid empty meetings with his loser comedy agent Harvey (Danny DeVito), his useless psychoanalyst and the paranoid Dobel, Falk obsesses over getting back into Amanda’s pants, since the live-in couple haven’t consummated their passion in the past six months. But because the audience never witnesses the couple sharing anything vaguely resembling a healthy sexual relationship, there’s no frame of reference for all the trouble that Falk goes to in his quest.

Amanda encourages Falk to have sex with other girls as long as he doesn’t tell her about it, apparently so she can go about having affairs of her own while using him as the doormat that he represents for her. Evidentially though, Falk’s sex drive isn’t demanding enough for him to stray outside of the relationship; it’s only strong enough for him to go along with Dobel’s Nazi fearing advice that he should purchase a phallic high-powered rifle to protect himself from possible attackers.

Woody Allen’s attempts at keeping the comedy buoyantly light with his signature use of Dixieland and Jazz music backfires with his overuse of Billie Holiday’s version of "Easy To Love." The melancholy atmosphere rubs against the grain of the film’s romantically barren message that fascism is the instigator of all conflict. Allen has always worn his heart on his sleeve in his movies, and he makes it clear that he’s suffered real emotional damage from the 9/11 attack on New York, and from the alienation he’s received over his not-so-private choices. Woody Allen has lost his knack for well-timed witty repartee, and for constructing stories that hang together in a cohesive manner, but he carries on making films that fewer and fewer audiences will attend.

It’s a credit to Jason Biggs’ talent that the young actor muscles his way through "Anything Else" with as much natural ease as he does. Christina Ricci doesn’t fair anywhere near as well and most of her scenes are painful to endure. What’s clear is that Woody Allen is a shadow of his former self, and that no amount of Herculean effort from any cast can elevate his soured comedic sensibility.

Rated R, 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)

June 11, 2005 in Comedy | Permalink