Anything Else

(2003) *** R
108 min. DreamWorks. Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Christina Ricci, Jason Biggs, Danny DeVito, Jimmy Fallon.

Woody Allen's recent press has raised cause for concern among Allen conoisseurs. For years now, Allen has gear-shifted like a man trying out a new 5-speed car; frothy hit-and-miss comedies have kept him safely under the radar but hardly the sort of demographically friendly, potentially high-paying investment studios embrace. With hot young talent like Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci and Saturday Night Live's Jimmy Fallon headlining Anything Else and reports that the next "Untitled Woody Allen Project" will star Fallon's SNL cohort Will Ferrell, Allen can be seen nakedly courting a young audience to stay relevant in the movie biz. DreamWorks, burning off the last picture on its contract with Allen, has all but erased the writer-director-star from his own auteur-driven project, blowing up Biggs and Ricci on posters and in Allen-less trailers.

Despite what's written on the wind, Allen remains a boutique filmmaker in a Wal-Mart world. Anything Else is a comfy old sweater of a movie for dyed-in-the-wool Allen devotees, unconventional by any standard other than Allen's own, consistently amusing, and masterfully bittersweet in the face of a universe of crass film comedy (embodied by Biggs's own mawkish fluidfests, mostly American Pie outings). Since Deconstructing Harry, Allen has been increasingly self-referential, and Anything Else evokes none so much as Allen's best-remembered vehicle Annie Hall, rethought as even more of a solipsistic anti-romance than that implosively wistful charmer. Abetted by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en), Allen remains a reliable purveyor of handsome and uncommonly reflective urban comedies.

Biggs plays Allen's young surrogate Jerry Falk, and though he's not as winning in the part as John Cusack (Bullets Over Broadway) or Edward Norton (Everyone Says I Love You), he acquits himself admirably. Jerry's a comedy writer, who finds mentorship with Allen's gagwriter and mania with Ricci's needy self-loather over the course of his own journey to self-awareness. Each object of affection mirrors Jerry's own personality tics, though Allen concerns his story less with the romance and the friendship--both ticking away to the plot detonation--than with the remaking of the hopelessly unprepossessing Jerry. Jerry confesses he cannot leave people: his girlfriends, his questionable agent (played to the achingly awkward hilt by Danny De Vito), his life-sucking therapist, or should the need arise, his increasingly nutty guru: Allen's wordsmith with a penchant for army-surplus hardware and creative masturbation.

Woody's tartly uncharacteristic David Dobel--a "survivalist" with an answer for everything--flings philosophical one-liners, hard centers packed inside borscht belt jokes like the ones Allen spoke to the screen in Annie Hall. Now Biggs talks to the audience, laden with self-doubt and as pointedly in love with the downbeat sentiments of Sartre and Dostoyevski as he is with his Chinese finger trap of a girlfriend. Ricci's Amanda makes Jerry the bellboy for her neurotic baggage: sexual dysfunction, anorexic impulses, a hanger-on mother (played by Stockard Channing), and worst of all, the insistence of love. Perhaps even more than usual, Allen remains inside the male viewpoint, excepting the lyrical stolen moment of Channing's late-night torch song. And yet, if Ricci--like Allen's off-kilter, latent aggressor--plays an unlikely vehicle for Jerry's epiphanies, she manages to make Amanda pitiably likeable and darkly sexy even as she recklessly, but guilelessly, hurts Jerry. Her perverse tests of Jerry's patience--worst-case dating scenarios, to be sure--might well twist the title of the film into a put-upon question: "Anything else?"

In fact, Allen contextualizes the title as a meaningfully humdrum approach to life ("It's just like anything else"). The curious and sublime joie de vivre of Allen's films inhales and exhales the quiet, rarified fresh air above the fretfulness and the angst: the mood-lit jazz in a tony nightclub, the frozen moment of conjugal bliss, the picturesque walks through the park or along the water, the working out of a deviously complicated thought or the tender self-expression of art. Jerry's real romance, like Allen's, is with life and all its "inexplicable mystery"; like any "other" worth knowing, it insists that its love comes only on its own terms.

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