Anything Else

on September 19, 2003 by Mark Keizer
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Those making the annual fall pilgrimage to the multiplex hoping this year's Woody Allen release will mark a return to his "earlier, funny ones" (or even his later, not-as-funny-but-still-good ones) will have mixed feelings about "Anything Else." While it's by far the best of his DreamWorks-distributed pictures (the others being "Small Time Crooks," "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" and "Hollywood Ending"), the film loses points for its plodding central relationship and its reliance on extremely well-worn Allen subject matter. Younger-skewing stars Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci hold the key to a wider audience, but the adult, sophisticated sheen will probably keep those under 30 from taking a chance on a Woody Allen film.

Since even the 67-year-old Allen must admit he's too old to play a man who has sex with Christina Ricci, the Woody surrogate is portrayed by a game Jason Biggs ("American Pie"). He plays Jerry Falk, a young Manhattan writer who breaks up with his girlfriend after becoming smitten with Amanda (Ricci), a sexually flighty aspiring actress. Helping Jerry navigate Amanda's fickle libido is David Dobel (Allen), a former comedy writer who begins pressuring Jerry to break up with Amanda and accompany him to Los Angeles, where sitcom fame and fortune await.

In Dobel, Allen has written himself his best part in years. The character fits comfortably into the narrative while taking a back seat to the main storyline. And since Dobel's primary purpose is to teach Jerry life lessons, Allen has an excuse to toss out various one-liners. However, when he starts going off about Jewish persecution (even convincing Jerry to buy a rifle for protection), he's trodding on familiar and tiresome territory. This also applies to the other characters: Only in a Woody Allen film do 24-year-olds have erudite discussions about Bogart and Dostoyevsky over dinner. Any attempt to freshen up the cultural references for the Biggs and Ricci generation would have been appreciated.

As for Jerry and Amanda, their relationship is intriguing and funny at first, but then becomes too one-note: she's sexually rudderless; he's too insecure to leave her. It rarely strays from that basic dynamic. Biggs tries mightily to live in Woody's world and basically succeeds, although he looks either unable or unwilling to truly carve his own creation. Amanda is more problematic. Instead of coming across as a Diane Keaton-style lovable loon, she's almost unlikable, as each new sexual twist becomes less funny and more annoying.

That being said, the film still features an admirable number of funny lines and observations. And although it meanders at points, there is a very welcome sense that Allen is back on track. The script feels as if he took more time with it and the cast (including Stockard Channing as Amanda's mother and Danny DeVito as Jerry's manager) is clearly enjoying itself. Also, Woody continues to make interesting choices in cinematographers. This time Darius Khondji ("Seven") realizes Allen's beautified, fairytale vision of New York.

Although the quality has waned in the past five years, there is no filmmaker more prolific, insightful and funny than Woody Allen. Like the falling of the first leaf, his annual release still ushers in autumn with excitement, even as we nervously wonder if he'll continue to creatively tread water. After all, even more depressing than the prospect of a bad Woody Allen film is the prospect of no Woody Allen film. Given that he is arguably our last link to an older, more literate generation of filmmaker, we'll take whatever we can get. Starring Woody Allen, Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci and Danny DeVito. Directed and written by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson. A DreamWorks release. Comedy. Rated R for a scene of drug use and some sexual references. Running time: 108 min

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