Anything Else

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Promising twenty-something comedy writer Jerry Falk’s life is slipping out of control: his agent is more interested in lunch than work, his girlfriend Amanda isn’t interested in sex at all – with him, anyway – and his new friend David Dobel mixes sage advice with bizarrely violent outbursts. When Amanda’s alcoholic mother moves in, Jerry has decisions to make, not least whether he’s going to be a doormat for the rest of his life.

You don’t need to have watched many of Woody Allen’s many, many films to get the gist. Yes, there are fascinating and sometimes brilliant excursions into period or other genres (Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown); but time and again the basic template is this: New York, old jazz records on the soundtrack, and a male writer protagonist going through psychological agonies about his infidelities or those committed by those he tries to love.

So it goes with Anything Else. This time the Allen substitute is Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), a comedy writer with a useless agent called Harvey (Danny DeVito), a taciturn shrink, and an increasingly unhappy relationship with actress Amanda (Christina Ricci), convinced she’s fat even though there’s not an ounce of fat on her. Jerry worships the ground Amanda walks on, even though she messes up their anniversary, invites her mother Paula (Stockard Channing) to stay without consultation, and – worst of all – hasn’t had sex with him for six months.

Jerry finds a semi-sympathetic ear in fellow, but aged, writer and disgruntled teacher David Dobel (Allen); as Dobel becomes ever more influential in Jerry’s life, egging him on to buy a gun and thereby causing havoc in the flat, Jerry’s life begins to crack up. Dobel shows unstable, paranoid tendencies and his insistence that Jerry dump Harvey has drastic consequences; meanwhile, Amanda continues to spurn Jerry’s advances whilst enticing (and satisfying) a host of other men, and to Jerry‘s ever-increasing exasperation her mother brings home a piano, quickly followed by a drug-using, horse-whispering toy boy.

When Dobel offers Jerry the chance to make a clean break by escaping to California and writing for TV it seems exactly what the young man needs; but as the old man could be a complete nut, there’s no guarantee that Dobel will be in any fit state to join him.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Anything Else’s cast chew endlessly over love, sex, religion, Manhattan life, nihilism, classic films and so on. As I said above, Allen has trodden this path before, and the material is starting to wear very thin indeed.  At times, Anything Else feels like not like an original film but a student remake of Annie Hall, only with next to nothing that you could call a plot.

Ordinarily, the wit of Allen’s material makes a slender story less of an issue; but this film is also sorely lacking in wit and wisdom and wastes every opportunity to create interest, making no effort whatsoever to round out the characters. Why make Jerry a gagsmith who never tells jokes? Why make Amanda an actress/singer who neither acts nor sings? There are some good one-liners as always, and occasional whiffs of invention (such as Jerry’s pieces to camera) but some jokes fall flat (the whole deal with Dobel’s verbosity, for example) and others are jarringly crow-barred into the dialogue to the extent that they are virtually non sequiturs.

It’s not all down to the writing, of course. Biggs still looks more the kid from American Pie than a grown adult and while he effectively mimics Allen’s mannerisms, it’s not great fun to see him being put upon for ninety-plus minutes – and who actually wants Biggs to channel Woody for that length of time?

Meanwhile, Allen as director doesn’t seem to have worried about Ricci’s performance so long as she lounges about in her skimpies, which she does frequently. What she doesn’t do is make Amanda sympathetic or likeable; she is, to be blunt, a brat, happy to sleep with men she’s just met but clinically averse to spending time with Jerry (though he’s such a sap, you can’t really blame her).Nothing about her character has any of the intelligence, depth or truth of Diane Keaton’s Annie and Allen and Ricci must share the blame for this; Allen must accept total responsibility for his ‘character’ David, essentially a direct outlet for the writer/director to vent his ever-more bitter musings.

Only Stockard Channing brings much in the way of flavour to her character, tempering Paula’s interfering presence and alcoholic recklessness with a wistful tenderness, exemplified in her touching performance of There’ll be Another Spring.

It would be a gross and unfair generalisation to say that Allen’s films are all the same, as he has made movies over the years ranging from screwball comedy to dark drama and everything in between. He’s made decent films in the last ten years, too, not least Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Blue Jasmine. However, he has produced enough variations on the New York writer with relationship issues to last a lifetime and this latest, junior version has to be the least satisfying so far. One can only hope that Woody isn’t tempted to visit the same ground again, as frankly I’d rather watch – you know what’s coming – anything else.

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