The fact that I can walk into a multiplex in 2003 and see a movie with plain white-on-black titles backed by Billie Holiday’s recording of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” is heartening. That such a film should include exchanges about preferring to listen to Holiday on vinyl because CDs sound “too sterile,” and boasts casual references to Sartre and Dostoyevsky, and its director didn’t stop to worry whether any of this tested well with (or was even comprehensible to) the largest possible target audience is encouraging. For that matter, the mere fact that Woody Allen is still making movies about the subjects that appeal to him, and still doing them in much the same manner he has for 30 years, is nearly enough to make Anything Else a cause for celebration.
Fortunately, there’s more reason to celebrate the arrival of Allen’s most trenchant work since the days of Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. No, Anything Else doesn’t entirely work on the level of Allen’s richest films, but it’s nonetheless a movie that suggests Allen is back in form after the slight, but still enjoyable Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending.
Woody’s detractors would have it that he’s merely recycling old material — mostly because Anything Else bears more than a passing resemblance to Annie Hall. But this strikes me as a short-sighted view. The new film isn’t so much a rehash of Annie Hall as it is a rethinking of it 26 years later. Annie in 2003 has turned into Amanda (Christina Ricci), who’s far from the lovably kooky neurotic of Allen’s earlier film. Amanda is self-centered to the point of being a borderline sociopath, and she’s nearer psychotic than neurotic. Sure, there’s a trace of curmudgeonly bitterness in this depiction of a 21st-century heroine, but that doesn’t keep the depiction from hitting home.
Similarly, Allen’s Alvy Singer has transformed into Jason Biggs’ Jerry Falk — a considerably younger man with many of the same traits as Alvy, but with a different set of problems — co-dependence and denial — than what usually plague an Allen character. Even so, Jerry is whom Allen would be playing if this movie had been made 25 years ago.
Allen has wisely decided to finally address his age (well, more or less, since he shaves about six years off his own character), and has opted to create an onscreen alter-ego in Jerry — and this poses something of a problem. It’s not unusual for actor/directors to fashion versions of themselves in other actors. Check out both Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren in Charles Chaplin’s last film, A Countess From Hong Kong, to see two very different performers being directed to play scenes the way their director would have played them. Allen has done something similar himself through the years — turning Mia Farrow into a kind of female Woody Allen and doing likewise with John Cusack (in somewhat less disconcerting terms). So why does the Biggs variation not work quite so well?
The easy answer is that Biggs isn’t as good an actor as Cusack or Farrow, though I think it has even more to do with Allen giving himself an Allenesque version of the role that he would once have assigned to Tony Roberts or Michael Murphy. (Indeed, like Roberts in Annie Hall, Allen’s character here argues — unthinkably — that Hollywood is the place to be, not New York.) It’s not that Allen is bad in this subordinate capacity; it’s that his presence keeps reminding you how much better the movie would be if Allen (as a young man) actually was playing Biggs’ role.
In his earlier attempts at creating an Allen variant (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, Bullets Over Broadway), Woody didn’t invite the comparison because he stayed offscreen. That said, the results in Anything Else are still better than you might think — and the film benefits in other ways from Allen’s presence: It’s almost as if we’re witnessing the older Woody Allen advising his younger self. Lord knows, Jerry could hardly be anyone else when we find his psychiatrist fixating on his dream of the Cleveland Indians all quitting baseball and getting jobs at Toys ‘R’ Us (remember Woody’s “erotic nightmare” about the A&P gypsies in Sleeper?).
The idea here is fascinating — a sometimes brilliant, always entertaining, personalized extension of Allen’s use of Humphrey Bogart giving romantic and life advice to Allen in Play It Again, Sam. Not that Allen as David Dobel in Anything Else is exactly the bastion of cool self-possession represented by Bogart in that pre-directorial Allen opus — far from it. Indeed, Dobel may be utterly ’round the bend — off on a paranoid binge that quite outdistances the usual Allen neuroses. It’s pure Woody Allen to have him argue against the concept of “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” offering instead: “What you don’t know can kill you — like being taken to showers that don’t turn out to be showers.”
That said, a Woody Allen character who actively advocates guns, is fixated on survival kits and gives in to road rage is something new on the screen. This degree of anger and paranoia has been beneath the surface before — Isaac in Manhattan expresses a desire to tackle a neo-Nazi march with baseball bats — but it’s never been this openly presented. Has Woody finally turned himself into the old man dribbling saliva, holding a shopping bag and screaming about socialism, as he foresaw in Annie Hall? Not quite. Dobel is too shrewd and perceptive to fit that simplistic caricature. Much of his advice to Jerry is sound, and it only takes him one meeting with Amanda to diagnose why she can no longer have sex with the young man (“She’s cheating on you”). Yet Dobel is nonetheless edgier and more unsettling than any previous Allen creation.
If you’re an admirer of Allen’s work, or if you’d simply like to take in a movie where people actually have conversations that express genuine ideas, Anything Else is a must-see — though I’d suggest it’s also a quick-see. Locally, at least, the film is doing extremely poor business (which may be the fault of an ad campaign that plays down Allen’s participation and seems to aim for the Jason Biggs/American Pie crowd), and isn’t likely to be around long.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke