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ANYTHING ELSE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Woody Allen, Danny DeVito, Stockard Channing, Jimmy Fallon
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  Production Notes, Talent Files
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  December 23, 2003

“You must really have a crush on me.”

“I do?”

“I'd say it's fatal.”

Film ***1/2

After kicking up his heels with a few light comedies, Woody Allen is back with his most bittersweet, insightful and smart film in some time.  Anything Else is probably best reflected by the agent in it who says his guy wants not just comedy, but truisms.  This is a picture loaded with them.

It's been compared to the Woodman's best movie Annie Hall, but that hasn't always resulted in favorable press.  After all, just about any romantic comedy pales in comparison to that masterpiece.  There are some similarities in that the film opens with Woody telling two key jokes that have a lot to say about life, the fact that the protagonist frequently breaks out of a scene to directly address the audience, and of course, that both are about the anatomy of a break-up.  But where Annie Hall was a laugh filled look at incompatible love, Anything Else is an exploration of the youthful, self-destructive kind.  It's a tale where insecurities are prevalent and always rising to the surface at inopportune times.

It stars Jason Biggs as Jerry Falk, the kind of character Woody might have played himself thirty years earlier.  He's a twenty-something struggling comedy writer, recently divorced and involved in a smooth relationship with a low maintenance girl, which he naturally mucks up by falling for Amanda (the luminous Ricci), who is a walking psychological smart bomb.

He falls for her for all the wrong reasons young people usually do:  she's beautiful and sexy, and they share some superficial traits such as liking the same music.  But neither is very mature about relationships.  “I can't commit,” she warns, but Jerry ignores the red flag.  Despite his increasing number of frustrations with her, he defends her to others and us by saying simply that she's a “knockout” and “adorable”.  We're beginning to understand that such qualities only go so far.  It's a lesson Jerry resists.

Amanda is charming but flighty, and self-absorbed to a fault.  Jerry's attracted to her with ever fiber of his being, but everything about her drives him nuts, from her constant lateness to her obsession with her weight, to her frequent careless callousness.  She's the kind of girl who says all the right things to pick at his insecurities, and guys like Jerry and the ones in the audience have to ask whether or not she realizes she's doing it.

Most of their early relationship we see in flashback form.  Currently, they've arrived at their anniversary, where Amanda shows up for Jerry's elaborately planned celebratory dinner extremely late and announcing she'd already eaten.  They've gone through a period of six months without sex.  “Do you love me?” Jerry asks in frustration.  “What a question!” she responds.  “Just because I pull away when you try to touch me?” 

She accepts the blame for the sexual crisis, but that doesn't make Jerry feel any better.  Nor does it help when she suggests he can sleep with other women until she gets over it…that's not what he wanted to hear.  In the meantime, she announces that her failed mother Paula (the superb Channing) is moving into Jerry's office for an unspecified time so that Mom can try to get her act together and pursue her dream of nightclub singing.  Getting the point?

Allen's script is darkly funny and insightful…I laughed a lot, but not always very hard, because so much of what he has to say rings out with a painful truth.  Most of us have probably been involved in a relationship like this at one time or another…hopefully for most of us it was a LONG time ago when we were young and stupid…but there's probably never been a film that really allowed us to see it so clearly for what it really is.

And yet we feel for these people even though they frustrate us.  The crumbling Jerry should wash his hands of Amanda for his own sake, but Amanda always manages to make him understand that she loves and needs him despite her emotional handicaps.  Perhaps the best and most defining moment comes when Jerry discovers she slept with one of her acting teachers, and Amanda's response to it was merely that she was trying to see if she could indeed have a fulfilling sexual experience.  She found out she can…why doesn't Jerry think that's wonderful?

A second tier story involves Woody playing one of his best characters to date.  David Dobel is a 60 year old public school teacher who, like Jerry, is trying to break into the business of comedy writing.  Dobel is bright and boasting a big vocabulary, and becomes something of a mentor to Jerry.  He seems to know a lot about everything, but there's a darker undercurrent to his character:  whereas most people Woody plays are neurotic and insecure, Dobel goes beyond that into a kind of unnerving paranoia.  What has happened to this guy to make him obsess over guns and survival kits and such?  And is he really as all knowing as he seems when at age 60 he still hasn't managed to turn his knowledge into success?

I've often said and I still say that since the passing of Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen is our greatest living American filmmaker.  Many find that surprising, but as a fan who has immersed myself in his work for most of my life, I find that he's a director who constantly surprises me by finding small, innovative ways to tell his stories.  It's a sure bet for me that nobody else in the movie business today is as good a writer as him.  His good screenplays are always witty and funny.  His best ones are insightful and truthful in the way they explore the human animal and its relationship to the world around him and with others. 

In the end, this is no Annie Hall…it was never meant to be.  The breezy romp through a delightful but ultimately failed relationship with Alvie and Annie could have never hinted at the psychological darkness of Jerry and Amanda.  Yet in typical Woody Allen fashion, Anything Else is ingeniously comic as well.  It points the microscope at a troubled relationship, but finds the humor in it as well.

Video ***1/2

Another quality offering from Dreamworks, this anamorphic widescreen transfer boasts Woody's (I think?) second only scope ratio offering.  His first, Manhattan, gave us a look at New York in all her black and white glory, but this one shows off her colors.  Woody's New York is a visual place; he knows all the great locations and backdrops, and the city itself is almost always a character in his films.  Here, the colors are beautiful as the cinematography takes on an almost nostalgic, old fashioned tone, maybe as an ironic romantic counterpoint to the strain of the story.  Images are clear and crisp, occasionally softened slightly for effect.  Very well done.

Audio ***

Woody Allen always mixes his movies for mono, but while this 2 channel track won't blow your system away, it's still a nice offering, filled with the Woodman's usual touches of classic songs and a breezy, jazzy score.  Dialogue is succinct and clear throughout, and there are a few dramatic touches to lend some dynamic range.

Features *

Just some talent files and production notes, though the notes are actually quite interesting and include quotes from Allen, Biggs and Ricci.

Summary:

Anything Else might seem a bit challenging to those who expect the lighthearted lilt of Annie Hall.  But those who love Woody Allen are bound to enjoy this probing, funny and honest look at a self-destructive relationship.  With a great cast and top notch writing and directing from Allen, I find this to be one of his best and most important movies in many years.