What is Woody Allen mad about now?

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Sept. 18 2003 7:08 PM

Woody's Angry

The nebbish makes his ugliest comedy yet.

Pie guy Biggs strikes it Ricci
Pie guy Biggs strikes it Ricci

After Woody Allen's last three mirthless comedies, I found myself in the bizarre position of hoping he'd go back to heavy drama—not out of longing for his lame Ingmar Bergman imitations, but out of loathing for his lame Woody Allen imitations. His newest film, Anything Else (DreamWorks), is another treadmill comedy, obviously churned out by a man who at this point is afraid not to write. It's a rehash of old themes, except it's even more vinegary than usual: It's misanthropic, misogynistic, and ugly—the reductio ad absurdum of Allen's relationship comedies. (The title is a fatalistic shrug: "It's like anything else …") I know women who've seen this film who pronounce its title the way some people say "yeast infection." Yet somehow I enjoyed it more than most of Allen's movies from the past decade. Unlike last year's limp confession of artistic impotence, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else feels driven. It's like a rant from a therapist's couch—angry, unmediated, free-associational, unleavened by sentiment or compassion. And it's something else that Allen hasn't been lately: funny.

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Imagine Annie Hall (1977) with the addition of a paranoid, one-man Greek chorus—an aging comedy writer named Dave Dobel (played by Allen) who's a mentor to the movie's protagonist, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs). During frequent walks through Central Park, Dobel lectures the ingenuous young comedy writer that Jerry's analyst is worthless and his brash little agent (Danny DeVito) a joke, that everyone hates the Jews, that he should own a Russian assault rifle for protection, and that there's no cosmic justice and no God. Dobel is clearly a frothing whack-job, and by the end of the film he has totally imploded. But he's still portrayed as the last wise man: He's pretty much right about everything.

He's especially right about the movie's Annie Hall counterpart, an aspiring actress named Amanda (Christina Ricci). Well, I shouldn't push the Annie comparison too far: Amanda is not an adorable space cadet but a duplicitous narcissist with a mother (Stockard Channing) who's even more self-involved. Flashbacks document Jerry and Amanda's courtship: He's living with the earnest Brooke (KaDee Strickland), she's living with Jerry's best friend, Bob (Jimmy Fallon). The romance is never exhilarating, not even in its first carnal flush: It's always undercut by lies and self-delusion. When Dobel meets Amanda, he describes her as a "mercurial little jitterbug" who'll have Jerry "holding up filling stations to keep her in mood elevators." He's also sure she's having an affair, which is why she hasn't slept with Jerry for six months.

A few years ago, Ricci played Elizabeth Wurtzel in the still unreleased movie of Prozac Nation, and her Amanda seems deliriously pickled in Wurtzelesque self-absorption. Her face gets my vote as the most freakishly beautiful in movies: With that lollipop head and those pop-out eyes, she's like a Martian mad scientist's version of a baby-girl temptress. It's a potent version, too: She's poison, but is there a man alive who wouldn't risk a sip or three? Allen shoots her splayed out in undies over big armchairs, casually rattling off lies about her whereabouts, her inexplicable sexual anxiety, her commitment to Jerry—whom she nonetheless encourages to sleep with other women. ("Only don't tell me about it.") She's not evil, like the studiously monstrous female in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (2003). It's her obliviousness to her own pathology that makes her truly bloodcurdling.

She's certainly too much woman for Biggs, who isn't very inventive here. When he talks to the camera, there's nothing going on in his bland, oval face: He looks like the guy they'd focus the lights on while Adam Sandler is still in his trailer. But Biggs does read his lines at the right quick tempo, and he gets his laughs. So does Allen, who stages most of the movie at a frantic clip. The characters babble at each other, insanely oblivious to anyone else, and just when you think the picture can't get any busier he throws in a split-screen phone call with more babbling lunatics on the other end. Allen has become very casual with his camera. From scene to scene, there's no filmmaking energy whatsoever. Yet Anything Else flies along: That chip on Allen's shoulder is like a jet pack.

As usual, Allen isn't looking within for the source of life's unhappiness: The problems are all external. Jerry's shrink (William Hill) sits impassively as the minutes tick away, mulishly refusing to answer direct questions: He's not even a one-joke character, he's Allen's revenge on psychoanalysis. And Jerry's agent isn't just vulgarly ineffectual: He's a pathetic chiseler who makes Broadway Danny Rose look like a beacon of potency. Even Allen's art comes in for an oblique form of criticism. Dobel counsels Jerry to labor ceaselessly, not because there's salvation in sublimation, but because work "gives the illusion of continuity."

In the movie's best scene, some huge, thuggish guys steal a parking space from Dobel, who confronts them and is viciously taunted for his righteous anger. As he and Jerry drive away, the younger man offers words of consolation. The Jewish intellectuals will have the last laugh, Jerry says: They'll go to a delicatessen and write a biting satire of those guys. It's a mighty moment when Dobel turns the car around, drives back to the thugs' car, and whips out a crowbar. That's what Anything Else feels like: a crowbar coming down on everything in the world that Allen despises—which at this point must be everything in the world. At times, it's a horrible spectacle, but Allen's timing, at least, is back, and the illusion of continuity is triumphantly preserved.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.