Woody Allen seems finally to have realized that it’s no longer a good idea for him to make movies in which he plays the character involved with some young girl; the problems not only of credibility but of propriety are just too great. So in his latest, “Anything Else,” he’s again fashioned the kind of troubled courtship piece in which he’s long specialized, about a frazzled, intellectually-inclined but psychologically clumsy fellow who struggles with life’s difficulties, particularly those involving his girlfriend; but in this case it’s a sort of relationship comedy by proxy, tapping a young actor–in this case “American Pie” guy Jason Biggs–to be his surrogate in the sort of wisecrack-filled romance in which he would once have played the nervous, doubt-ridden guy at the center of the action himself. But Allen doesn’t absent himself completely; instead he takes the part of the adviser who prods the protagonist into thinking about his situation and taking action which may or may not prove utterly disastrous. Thus the picture in effect becomes a kind of second-generation offspring of a movie from Allen’s past. Unfortunately, the result has a stale, musty taste, a one-step-removed-from-the-original feel that only makes you remember how much you once enjoyed Woody’s couple conflicts when confronted by a pale copy like this one. Though the widescreen color cinematography is lovely, sitting through the picture is narratively like watching a tape that’s a dupe of a dupe: what once might have seemed witty and sophisticated now comes across as tired and recycled. It somehow seems appropriate that Allen bookends the piece with two of the oldest jokes in the canon–the one about the doctor telling his patient “Just don’t do that” near the beginning, and the one about the broken watch being right twice a day near the close (both so hoary that Henny Youngman would have been embarrassed to repeat them)–because on a less obvious level, the rest of the picture seems second-hand, too.
The purported hero is Jerry Falk (Biggs), a struggling comedy writer who has dumped his former girlfriend Brooke (KaDee Strickland), who seems a nice, understanding type, in favor of Amanda (Christina Ricci), an egocentric, free-wheeling would-be actress whom he effectively steals from a pal (Jimmy Fallon) after falling for her at first sight. The relationship is hardly a smooth one: she’s neurotic and demanding, and he’s convinced that she’s also unfaithful; to make matters worse, she blithely invites her equally self-centered mother Paula (Stockard Channing) to stay with them, despite the lack of room, while the woman tries to start a singing career. Jerry’s other chief relationships aren’t so hot, either. He’s stuck with an inept agent named Harvey (Danny DeVito) who’s chosen to have only one client–Jerry–and a psychiatrist (William Hill) who’s so passive he never offers his patient any help. Into this brew comes David Dobel (Allen), a high school teacher and aspiring comedy writer himself, who serves as a catalyst in the plot by pouring cynical, dismissive (but cleverly expressed) advice into Jerry’s ear, often by reference to old jokes and quotations from important writers. (His other defining characteristic is a habit of using unusual words in conversation, like “tergiversate.”) It doesn’t take long for Dobel’s insistent prodding to lead Falk to question his relationship with Amanda, the usefulness of his shrink, and the value of resigning with Harvey. Dobel also turns out to be a survivalist (with a history of instability and a violent underside, no less), and he implicates Jerry in those interests, too.
As this story plays out, it comes to seem more and more ill-conceived. For one thing, as written Jerry is pretty much a hopeless cipher; had Allen played this schmuck a few decades ago, he would have had all the witty lines, but here Allen reserves whatever his inspiration can muster for his own character of Dobel, and poor Biggs–not an impressive fellow under the best of circumstances–is left with very lame leavings. (Since he narrates a good portion of the tale by addressing the audience directly, the effect is doubly deadening.) Then there are the leading female characters, Amanda and Paula, who are simply so grating and unpleasant–even when played by such talented people as Ricci and Channing–that even the most spineless man would flee from them in an instant. Also problematic, finally, is the figure of Dobel. It’s never really credible that he and Jerry should have become so inseparable under any circumstances, but even setting that aside, Dobel never comes across as even vaguely credible–he’s a mass of quirky characteristics that fail to blend into a consistent whole. And in the end the humor he provides turns out to be so dark and sour that his glibness comes to be more pathetic than funny.
The cast performs gamely within the limitations of Allen’s vision, but to little effect. Biggs throws himself around in a way that suggests Woody’s erstwhile stumbling characters without lapsing into dumb parody such as Kenneth Branagh attempted in “Celebrity,” but he comes across as pretty colorless, while Allen himself does the usual shtick. Ricci works very hard at Amanda, but the girl is simply too obnoxious to tolerate, and much the same is true of Channing. DeVito, on the other hand, has a few moments as Harvey, but what happens to the sad-sack agent is another sour bit, and Fallon, the SNL regular, may get major billing but is stuck in a brief, throwaway role–virtually a cameo–which he doesn’t carry off very well, anyway. The picture looks fine, with nice cinematography by Darius Khondji that shows off Central Park to fine advantage, but one has never gone to Woody Allen movies for the scenery. It’s the dialogue and situations that have always mattered. And in those respects, “Anything Else” proves to be nothing much.