Fecund Woody Allen rarely lets a year go by without offering another glimpse into his world of New York angst and irony–the classic clown whose giddy surface of laughter expresses a disillusioned view of a world that never measures up. With his now familiar opening titles of simple white lettering on a black background and his favored music (Dixieland or Billie Holiday–American jazz standards), Allen sets an upbeat mood as he settles into a new set of variations on his old themes. It’s a chancy strategy, one that seems to have limited new creativity or growth in this old master. He runs the risk of his films becoming what a line in Anything Else describes as "a giant ‘so what’?"
Finally, at nearly 70, acknowledging he should no longer play romantic leads, Allen uses Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) as his alter ego here. Falk is a young writer, making a living writing comedy, but working on the Great American Novel–naturally it’s about "a godless world, an empty universe, and human suffering." Allen stays in the picture, casting himself as Falk’s friend and mentor, David Dobel, a high scool teacher who writes comedy as a sideline.
Anything Else has the broad sweep of a (slightly delayed) coming-of-age film, with the naive Falk slowly realizing (with Dobel’s help) how he let’s himself be used and manipulated by the people in his life. His girlfriend and flatmate, Amanda (Christina Ricci), is an immature nymphet, utterly self-absorbed, selfish and inconsiderate. Amanda’s mother, Paula (Stockard Channing), is the perfect mother to explain her obnoxious daughter, with the same traits, albeit without the eating disorders. She’s intrusive, assertive, and living somewhere outside of reality.
Falk’s agent, Harvey (Danny DeVito) milks Falk for far more than standard commissions and repeatedly uses the same tired sales pitches (funny the first time). And Falk’s analyst sits in his chair, stone-faced as he listens to Falk’s quandaries, never once offering anything but the vapidities of non-directive therapy, answering questions with "How do you feel about that?" Allen’s hostility to shrinks is palpable throughout.
There’s a goodly helping of Allen’s zingers throughout the movie, although some might find that there aren’t quite enough to keep the 108 minute running time sufficiently lively. Jerry is a likable character, but he’s placed in the position of straight-man in the center of the action. It’s hard to believe this character writes comedy. Biggs is a charmer and has Allen’s intonations and cadences down to a tee.
On the other hand, Ricci’s character is drawn so unpleasantly that it’s hard to see why Jerry puts up with her manipulative behaviors and sexual withholding. Ricci has an awful lot of time on screen and mostly induces a desire to slap her face. Unfortunately, nobody does. The character unbalances the film, weighs down its humor, and makes it seem a lot longer than it is. It’s hard to say how much of the responsibility to pin on the writing, the direction, or her acting.
But Allen gives himself enough time on screen to make the Dobel character fun and quirky and, at least for his fans, there’s plenty of Allen-schtick to enjoy. "I feel like committing suicide, but I’ve got so many problems, that wouldn’t solve them all," couldn’t be anything but an Allen line. He makes direct observations ("Shrinks can’t help you. Life is what it is." and "Work gives the illusion of meaning. Sex gives the illusion of continuity.") that fly by almost too quickly. He provides a line to Biggs like, "There was something compelling in your apathy," that is pointed and very funny at the same time. And Dobel, as he teaches Jerry to take charge, himself demonstrates in a funny sequence that taking charge is sometimes an inappropriate and counter-productive strategy.