SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
It Couldn't be 'Anything Else' But Allen
By Jeremy Mathews
No, it's not 'American Pie 4,' but 'Anything Else,' a distinctive Woody Allen film with young stars Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci.

“Anything Else”
Dreamworks Pictures
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Letty Aronson
Starring Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Woody Allen, Stockard Channing, Danny DeVito and Jimmy Fallon
Rated R
(out of four)

The promotions for “Anything Else” portray the film as a romantic comedy with two hot young stars. In actuality, it’s pure Woody Allen and couldn’t have been anything else if the writer/director/actor had intended it to be. Even in his films with no Allen-like characters—like 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” with its amazing Sean Penn performance—the long takes and experiments with the medium, witty dialogue and existential conflict are all there.

“Anything Else” has more substance than the last few Allen films, which were basically larks, but still contains enough witty dialogue for 10 average screenplays.

Jason Biggs of “American Pie” fame and Christina Ricci, who grew up on screen in independent and Hollywood films, play 20-something neurotics who live in New York City and experience a modernist struggle. Take out the 20-somethings, and I’ve just described several other recent Allen films.

In the film’s early scenes, we’re reminded of Allen’s masterpiece “Annie Hall” as jokes are used to express greater truths in life, and the hero meets his girlfriend, who shows up late for a date, and then remembers how the relationship started.

Biggs plays Jerry Falk, a young comedy writer struggling with his girlfriend, Amanda (Ricci) and his career, which is under the clumsy hands of his agent, Harvey (Danny Devito). The date Amanda shows up late for is their anniversary dinner—and she’s already eaten. If things weren’t bad enough for Falk, he’s also on the sixth month in which Amanda hasn’t been in the mood to sleep with him. He doesn’t know if she’s in the mood to sleep with other people or not.

While Falk’s traits are clearly based on Allen’s persona, Allen also wrote himself into a large supporting role as Falk’s mentor, Dobel. A writer who never had enough confidence to quit his teaching job, Dobel serves as a jolt to tell Falk the things that he’s in denial over. Two neurotic character types in one film is a major risk, but there’s enough of a difference between them that the film works.

Allen’s character is different from the characters he’s played in the past. While he’s still the witty neurotic fans have come to expect, his neuroses result in a contrasting personality. He gives Falk a sometimes violently extreme version of the personality he wishes he had.

At times, he makes sense with his logical conclusions about Falk’s girlfriend, agent and analyst. Other times, however, he reveals insane paranoia and explains his obsessions with disaster and intruder preparation. He even buys Falk a shotgun to protect himself from, in his words, criminals, anti-Semites and rapists.

In one very funny and satisfying scene, Dobel retaliates against some bullies in a scene that must have been brewing in Allen for years. Serving as a contrast to his usual persona, Allen plays wild neurotic to Biggs’s self-conscious neurotic.

If not delivered properly, Allen’s deliberate fast-and-slow dialogue can sound phony, no matter how well-written it is. John Cusack masterfully put his own spin on the Allen-type character in “Bullets Over Broadway,” but even actors as talented as Kenneth Branagh have failed to put an original spin on it. Biggs does better than you might expect from his short career, but still has trouble with the occasional spontaneous outbursts and pauses.

The emotions resonate, however, and the comedy never gets lost. Falk struggles with modernist Allen conflicts while working on a novel about life’s emptiness in addition to his comedy.

Ricci and Biggs create nice comic situations as the conflicting couple. Amanda is a walking contradiction and she drives Falk into extreme uneasiness. Stockard Channing is dead-on playing Amanda’s mother, a promiscuous lush who moves in with the couple and heightens the comedy of their arguments.

In most scenes, Allen lets the comedy speak for itself in long takes. He also uses one of his favorite monologue techniques, as Biggs steps out of a scene to discuss his hang-ups with the audience.

It’s unclear whether Allen’s technique will play well with the audience the studio is trying to sell it to. That generation has been brought up on fast cuts and special effects, not modernist discussion and cinematic technique. But the sexual humor might win people over and the artist constantly works, regardless of success or failure, trying new things but always being Woody.

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