When Woody Met Woody...

Woody Allen has the somewhat annoying habit of putting himself into his films. Whether it's him portraying an aspect of his personality on screen or someone else, we are subject to hearing his ideas about women, relationships, sex, therapy, and the overwhelming desperation known as life. The upside is that we at least know what to expect.

Anything Else is a new wrinkle on the Woody Allen formula. Like some of his more serious works, the Allen-like character of Jerry Falk is played by someone else, in this case Jason Biggs. But we also have Allen in the film as a much less Allen-like fellow, Dobel, which resembles a cross between himself and Ted Kaczynski. Is this a nod to Allen's increasing age and the consequent decline of his ability to fit the role of a conventional romantic lead? Perhaps, but one suspects he enjoys being paired up with the attractive young actresses, despite being criticized for it.

Here, writer Allen puts aspiring comedy writer Jerry together with aspiring actress Amanda (Christina Ricci), a maddening, difficult woman of contradictions and raw sexuality (someone should clock the minutes we see Ricci in her underwear versus her entire screen time). Dobel (played by Allen, remember?) is the older writer/crackpot who takes Jerry under his wing and advises him on his career and especially his difficulties with Amanda.

Jerry breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly. It beats a voiceover, but isn't as clever as the Greek Chorus in Mighty Aphrodite. For the kind of internal examination that this film is, it's hard to avoid some kind of device like that, and at least it's done the right way - being about feelings and character rather than (only) exposition. We also bump around in time a little bit, but only early in the film and always for a clear reason - these devices are kept as tools for the story and never rise above it.

Allen himself is quite believable and entertaining in this extreme character - I would love to see him do this sort of thing more often (and admittedly, it's much like what he's done for other directors in films like The Impostors and Picking Up The Pieces). Biggs as the Allen-like character is adequate, but seems to lack something - he's neither enough like Woody to complete the illusion, nor does he bring enough of his own to the equation (as, say, Kenneth Branaugh in Celebrity) to fill out the part. Ricci is nearly pitch-perfect in a difficult part.

We also meet Danny DeVito as Jerry's single-minded agent and Stockard Channing as Amanda's mother, who moves in to make a fairly uncomfortable situation. Allen makes everyone a clear character here. Nobody is unclear about who they are, only what they actually want.

The comedy shines here, easily pacing any of his other films for one-liners, but they never outshine the story, merely complimenting, even enriching the details of the plot.

Allen's recent films Hollywood Ending and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, both didn't quite work, mainly because they were trapped by stereotypes and low-brow humor (well, given some of the gross out flicks lately, that might qualify as "medium brow" now). Anything Else uses Allen's stereotypes to actually do something: explore character. You may never reach many actual conclusions from his films, but there's usually insights and commentary on the human condition for us to relate to. Anything Else fits the pieces together better than anything of his since Mighty Aphrodite (the only film in that range I've missed at this point is Sweet and Lowdown, so I think that's a fair statement to make). I even suspect the last couple films for Allen were just marking time while the elements of this script were settling in place. There's a certain balance between tight and loose, structure and character, which suggests to me the idea was kicking around for a while, going through quite a few drafts. I could be completely wrong, but that won't keep me from speculating...

Woody Allen is not everyone's cup of tea (or whiskey, or whatever), but Anything Else is the best opportunity in some time to really enjoy one of his films. I don't know if he'll get new fans from this one film, but the film itself deserves the attention. I realize I've largely compared this film to Allen's other works. The fact is, his body of work is both unique and substantial, and Anything Else comes pretty darn close to being the ultimate Woody Allen film, firing on all cylinders at once.

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