New Movies -
Old Movies -
Anything Else (Woody Allen, 2003)
It seems that these days, the majority of critics are willing to just lazily assume that Woody Allen is stuck in a rut, but it will tough for them to hold that stance after viewing his latest film, Anything Else. Due to the preponderance of long takes, which mark a radical, but subtle stylistic shift from the director’s usual output, and subject matter that contains a more subtle shift, the movie feels oddly at ease with itself. Always one of the American cinema’s prime soul searchers, Allen has cast himself here as Dobel, a comic sage just on this side of sanity. The advice that he gives to his protégé Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) comes mostly in the form of anecdotes and jokes, with a tacked on, “Think about it.” He blatantly states in the first scene that “There is great wisdom in jokes,” and I think this might be a signifier to his audience that despite attempts at Bergman-like introspection in more serious works like Interiors and September, he’s gotten no closer to universal truths in those films than in his comedies. I don’t see that as a failing of his dramas so much as a testament to how insightful and touching Allen can be in his genre of choice. By that logic, though, with Anything Else on the surface a frivolous comedy, it should come as no surprise that Allen seems to be smuggling themes of great import within.
Anything Else is easily one of the funniest movies of the year. Dobel’s assault on a parked car being one of the year’s true highlights, because it blends slapstick with a genuine sense of (post-9/11?) rage, and it shows how behind its rapid fire verbal wit, Anything Else is a quiet disquisition on separation anxiety. Dobel’s neuroses are wildly out of check, and as he waits for the second Holocaust and prepares for the city to become a battleground, he’s probably manifesting some of the doubts that Allen himself has had about remaining in the city. Quite simply, the thought of stepping into “anything else” becomes terrifying for its central character, Falk. There’s something comfortable in the familiar, even if you’re familiar with misery, the movie seems to be telling us. When a cabbie, the clichéd source of simple yet true New York wisdom offers a dismissive, “It’s like anything else,” to Dobel’s worries about death, it seems like a genuine breakthrough in Allen’s cinema of the neurotic (and the ending of the film, which shows a real severance of ties, is a bold step forward in his oeuvre).
That’s not to suggest Anything Else is not similar in tone to the rest of the director’s work. Focusing primarily on a boy-meets-girl story, the relatively simple plot gives the audience an amusing but insightful chance to observe some typically irrational behavior. The early scenes of the film, in which Falk is convinced that Amanda (Christina Ricci) is the girl for him, manage to capture a sense of swooning romanticism that’s tempered by the fact that this new love requires two breakups to get off the ground. In one especially funny scene, he either learns that she has his favorite poet, singer, and environ, or at least convinces himself that she does. Not long after he allows her to move in however, she mentions that she has a “problem with commitment”, which puts it lightly. Before long, the two of them have gone without sex for six months. Although Allen paints the moody, disorganized, self-obsessed Amanda as something of a monster, he certainly doesn’t discourage the audience from wondering why Falk puts up with her. The repeated allusions to Tod Browning’s Freaks might be a bit snide, but they probably aren’t coincidental. Biggs radiates a sweet charm, though, so he’s likable in spite of his slightly pathological behavior, and that gives the movie enough heart to avoid ever feeling cynical. Throughout, it’s Allen’s ability to endear us to his characters in spite of their flaws that makes Anything Else’s never-ending ambivalence about the temptation to run away from a bad situation and start afresh bearable.