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.