Movie review by Greg Carlson
Woody Allen is so reliably prolific as a writer-director of New York City-based tales of cosmic humiliations and bittersweet relationships, seeing one of his films is often like pulling on a comfortable, well-worn sweater. Even when his newer work fails to live up to the spectacular golden age that delivered pictures like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” it is still a bracing antidote to much of the poison being sold as caviar in the current cinema. The old, dependable formula is in full-swing in “Anything Else,” a funny riff on Woody’s regular obsessions with difficult girlfriends, anti-Semitism, and occupational failure.
Jason Biggs is in fine form as Jerry Falk (the role Woody would have played had the movie been made some time ago), a young comedy writer represented by a struggling, past-his-prime agent (Danny DeVito, in a small, but wonderfully comic part). Jerry is mentored and guided by fellow writer David Dobel (Allen), a neurotic conspiracy theorist hell-bent on assembling the perfect survival kit for the inevitable Armageddon. Dobel dispenses misguided life-advice to Jerry on a daily basis, often summarizing his personal philosophy through antique vaudeville one-liners and other ancient witticisms. Meanwhile, Jerry is tied up in knots over Amanda (Christina Ricci), a dangerous man-magnet and all-around reckless, free-spirited flake.
Despite the obvious hazard of making Amanda a nightmarish femme fatale, Allen sidesteps the potential charges of misogyny by allowing Ricci to craft a sly and subtle performance that propels the film forward. Sure, Amanda is an obvious liar and cheat, but she is also forthcoming about many of her eyebrow-raising lifestyle choices. There is also the little matter of how Jerry hooked up with her in the first place – via an illicit affair begun while both parties were involved with significant others. In other words, Allen makes it abundantly clear that Jerry is responsible for the generous servings of misery he chokes down after getting involved with Amanda.
Like many of Allen’s character-driven movies, “Anything Else” plays as a series of comic vignettes dependent upon the chemistry of the actors. Individual scenes draw solid laughs, including the sight of Allen’s Dobel weakly trying to smash out the windows of a car following a chastening at the hands of a pair of thuggish louts, a sidewalk exchange in which Jerry’s plans for a fancy anniversary dinner are spoiled when Amanda informs him she has already eaten, and the tour de force spectacle of DeVito’s character having a disruptive meltdown in a nice restaurant.
Even as he ages, Woody Allen enlists extremely talented directors of photography in order to keep himself, his actors, and his beloved Manhattan looking as attractive as possible. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (adding his name to a long list of venerable DPs to shoot for Allen) practically makes his locations glow from within, and the many scenes set in Central Park are gorgeous. Ricci and Biggs have also never looked better on film than they do here. Nobody is going to argue that Allen or DeVito are in line to win any beauty contests, but co-star Stockard Channing (taking an uncharacteristically flimsy role) also receives the Khondji touch.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/22/03.