I’m not sure that Woody Allen will ever again reach the peak of his form. Although it depresses me to think that I will never again see a Crimes and Misdemeanors or Manhattan, I have accepted Woody’s decline and understand that for a filmmaker as prolific as he is (he still pumps out a film a year), there are bound to be disappointments. After last year’s fiasco Hollywood Ending, which I still believe is the worst film he has ever made, I had low expectations for Anything Else. There is something comforting about Woody Allen’s universe, a place where, despite the neurotic behavior and stifling narcissism, people still read, discuss Big Ideas, and prefer the sounds of Cole Porter and Miles Davis over Kid Rock or Eminem. Even in Woody’s less than noble efforts, I feel at home, despite his lack of creativity and refusal to extend himself beyond the same old jokes and situations told in the same way. He rarely tackles a genuine challenge, except of course when he does a period film, which, without exception, are always fantastic and creative. But with Anything Else, Woody stays in the comforting present, although this time he has taken a backseat to Jason Biggs as Jerry Falk, a struggling comedy writer who acts as Woody’s stand-in much as Kenneth Branagh did in 1998’s Celebrity. Woody does appear in Anything Else, but only as a supporting character — a paranoid, nutty little man who dispenses both advice and life lessons to be learned from old jokes.
As always, Woody’s latest involves the difficulties and trials of romantic entanglements, from sexual dysfunction to the belief that we are always wanting something else in matters of love or indeed, “anything else.” Jerry has what appears to be a great relationship with Brooke, but finds that once she considers marriage, he becomes more attracted to the girlfriend of a buddy, played by Christina Ricci. This new object of Jerry’s affection is Amanda, a woman who shares his love of Billie Holliday, poetry, and bleak philosophy. They chat endlessly about deep subjects and seem to have an almost immediate connection and sexual attraction. Jerry, it seems, has found the exact sort of woman he has always been claiming he wanted — articulate, intelligent, and artsy. Still, as with all Woody Allen comedies, the thing we want we usually get, and then we are forced to admit that perhaps we didn’t really want it in the first place. Or there is another girl down the block who feels a little more passionately about that book I loved, so..It goes on and on. But Jerry is not the cheating kind with Amanda, and it is she who wanders, which she justifies as an attempt to prove that she can still achieve orgasm. Jerry and Amanda have a terrible sex life, which is vastly different from their early courtship. At first, they had sex in hotels, public places, and managed to screw in just about every position imaginable. Now, deep into their relationship, Jerry has to be content with masturbation and Amanda’s endless excuses and delays, which are often achieved through imagined illness.
In addition to the romantic trouble, Jerry is also dealing with an obnoxious, no-good agent played by Danny DeVito. Jerry would like to get rid of the guy, but as with Amanda, he lacks the courage to do anything rash. As Woody’s character David Dobel says of him, he fears sleeping alone, or being alone at all because then he would be forced to face the underlying problems that he usually manages to keep at bay. This is the same idea as Manhattan, where Woody’s character says that we invent silly little problems to keep us from asking deeper, more troubling questions about the universe. But Jerry does look into matters of life, death, and love, although he seems to use them as mere conversation rather than truly penetrating the mysteries of life. When Jerry does probe his mind, he becomes suicidal, depressed, and disgusted. It is one of Woody’s recurring nuggets that when human beings look inward, they become sad and morose, which is why they fill their lives with noise, routine, and a heaping plate of bullshit. It’s the central human dilemma. To think, or think deeply, is to risk unhappiness. So, in the end, we choose not to think at all.
So round and round we go, watching the sexual games, the lies, and the manipulation, all the while wondering why in the hell we bother. Is it simply, as Alvy Singer said in Annie Hall, because “we need the eggs?” We know we are ridiculous creatures when we fall in love, and even more ridiculous when we start to lose it, so why do we try again and again? Are we, in fact, fools for love? Or is the possibility of sex just too powerful to ignore? Woody seems to believe that we can be, and often are, driven mad by the thought that we will only have sex with one other person the rest of our lives, so chronic dissatisfaction is our lot. The people of Anything Else seem to accept this premise, and they are no doubt some of the most depressing characters ever featured in an Allen film. They are so despairing and so monstrous that I shrank in my seat, if only because I feared the truth myself. Yes, Woody’s characters inhabit a world that is isolated and seemingly unreal (have you heard anyone mention Camus in casual conversation in the past six months? ever?), but their entanglements — featuring words and phrases only the most learned of us could hope to understand — are in fact grounded in reality.
We doubt, we question, we do things that educated people should never do, and yes, we act as if we are not in control of our own bodies. We find people who are attractive, funny, and generous, yet we piss it all away for a night of cheap passion with someone who wouldn’t survive close scrutiny under a bright lamp. We find bizarre people attractive (as one character admits to, preferring those who don’t meet the usual standards of beauty). We think we are fat even when we have dynamite figures (which Ricci does in spades, I might add). We fear the ridiculous, yet continue to live our daily lives amidst numerous real dangers (like driving a car). Anything Else might not stop the presses for its originality (as a Woody film or otherwise), but I found myself thinking these things during the movie, and it’s not very often I get to think at all while sitting in the theater seats.
It has been said that Anything Else is Woody’s attempt to appeal to a younger generation (casting Biggs, Ricci, and SNL’s Jimmy Fallon in a small role), but I don’t buy it. I can’t imagine teenagers liking a film that references existential drama, Luis Bunuel, and John Coltrane, and that has a character who gleefully announces his atheism. The people of this film, despite being young themselves, are well read, passionate, and interested in what moves the world. Now perhaps turning thirty has made me excessively cynical, but I haven’t met a teenager yet who could keep up with the folks in this film. I would imagine that if anything these people discussed was brought up in conversation with the average American teen, he or she would run screaming from the table and into the nearest shopping mall. Regardless of the faces that may populate his films, the words are still Woody’s, and no marketing campaign on earth could ever make them accessible to the young. Ain’t gonna happen, Wood-man.
So did I like Anything Else and would I recommend it to others? Yes, it was a decent film, although I will refrain from a ringing endorsement. The dialogue often sparkles and the characters kept me involved, but the film seemed to run out of gas at the end. Woody’s films have always been better as 85-90 minute works, and it makes no sense to keep this one around for nearly 110. The final scenes work in their own way and add to the level of despair (no redemption here), but by the time they arrived I felt full and ready to move on. Shave it down by about 15 minutes and I might be more excited. Still, you should know that I often go out of my way to defend Woody, as I have loved so many of his films and count several in my personal top twenty. He believes that words trump action, and I have always valued his efforts on behalf of intellectuals and artists. Yes, he often makes fun of their pretensions, but at the very least we get to hear adults having the sorts of conversations that seem so foreign precisely because they are so rare in our daily lives. Anything Else is indeed an addition to that fine tradition, although it doesn’t qualify as top-tier Woody. If you’re a fan of the man, by all means check it out. If you are ambivalent or even hostile, avoid it at all costs. It won’t win any converts and it certainly won’t give you anything new if you haven’t found it before. It makes sense that Woody’s films don’t make any money, and I am usually the first to argue that if they ever did, something is either wrong with the public or the film itself. Once again, however, I can rest easy. Anything Else will be a major flop. Not by Woody’s standards, but in the context of our box-office obsessed culture. That, I must say, is still fine by me.