3-1/2 stars (out of 4)
The good news about "Anything Else" is that it's one of the best, most smoothly executed Woody Allen movies in recent years. The bad news is that Allen seems so alienated from audiences lately, they may still pass it by for something else anything else.
The movie deserves better. This acid-tongued and nervy comedy about young love, paranoia and the unlikely bond between a pair of Manhattan jokesmiths - up-and-coming Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) and late bloomer David Dobel (Allen) - has some of the wit, sass and sexual candor of an "Annie Hall." But it covers the same kind of territory with more bite and bile. A Manhattan sex comedy in which Allen has "demoted" himself from romantic lead to supporting eccentric, it's the best thing he's done since "Sweet and Lowdown," and one of the few really smart romantic comedies of the year.
The movie, which charts Jerry's romantic fall and comedic rise though his own eyes and those of the irascible Dobel, also has one of the scariest of Allen's nightmare-neurotic movie girlfriends: the incredible Christina Ricci as would-be actress Amanda, a cross between Annie Hall and Attila the Hun. It has marvelous performances by Allen, Danny DeVito (as Jerry's inept agent) and Stockard Channing (as Amanda's self-indulgent mom), and a very sympathetic one by Biggs.
"Anything Else" has something tougher and darker as well. It boasts some of the meanest, most elegant sexual humor and cruelest, funniest topical gags since Billy Wilder's heyday. Allen makes us laugh, but he also offers a hard, often bleak look at life's failures and the sensual delights and torments of youth, as seen though the eyes of age.
It's an uncomfortable movie to watch, but that's part of what's refreshing about it. Biggs' Falk has the lead narrator role that Allen himself usually takes, and the kid, though maybe not the best possible choice, works out fine. Exuding that feckless charm and quiet panic he lavished dubiously on the "American Pie" movies, Biggs plays Jerry as a melancholy young Manhattanite who's trying to break through as a comedy writer while having a hot romance with curvy, free-spirited Amanda.
As Ricci plays her, Amanda is a lusty girl-child who drives Jerry crazy while juggling other off-screen romances that she insists aren't happening - but which we know probably are. She's a self-indulgent baby, bulldozing Jerry into sharing digs with her lusty mother Paula (Stockard Channing), a wannabe torch chanteuse who pursues an ephemeral dream of Peggy Lee (or maybe Margaret Whiting) glory while dragging home coke-sniffing boyfriends.
Meanwhile, Jerry's piddling career is subject to the inept machinations of his hapless but well-paid agent, Harvey (DeVito), who likes to compare his client's talent to high-quality garments. ("Funny! Seamless!") Jerry is also prey to the smart-aleck monologues, nonstop acrimony and mounting psychoses of his partner and mentor, Dobel, who, while working for decades as an English teacher at a gun-happy high school, has become a wizened, embittered fanatic with an apartment full of armaments and a heart full of malice. Unfortunately, much of what paranoid Dobel says proves to be true.
"Anything Else" is really told from two points of view: the sweet-tempered reveries of Jerry, which is what we hear on-screen, and the caustic venom of Dobel, which we get during their jaunts through the city and Central Park. Jerry is our apparent guide, but in a way, Dobel, with his crochets and tirades, is the movie's true heart and mind. In fact, Allen might have effectively used a double narration here, letting us hear Jerry's view, Dobel's view and then contrasting them, "Rashomon"-like.
Making Biggs the lead, though, takes some pressure off the great writer-director-star, who has been getting constant grief lately for his temerity in casting himself as a romantic lead in his 60s, opposite mostly younger, beautiful co-stars. Here, playing a shaggy never-was, a misanthropic nerd who teaches tough city kids while pursuing his faded dream of writing comedy, he's immune to any charges that he's prettying himself up.
Dobel is an unvarnished creep; his only saving graces are candor and guts. But here, Allen can vent the role's full creepiness without any worries about alienating the audience, since he's not the romantic star. His acting is acerbic, cutting, very funny and, beneath it all, a tad Bergmanesque.
Allen gets a contemporary feel here, not just because he includes a rock song (by Moby), or because he isn't making a period piece or a recycled genre movie, but also because he and his new cinematographer, Darius Khondji ("Delicatessen," "Se7en"), give us a grainy "Love the Hard Way"-like eyeful of today's New York streets, taking their camera outside to breathe in some of the dirty air.
The movie's title refers to a persistent punch line in which we're informed that anything bad or strange that happens is "like anything else." And so it is. The whole film suggests a reworking of ideas and characters in "Annie Hall," "Play It Again, Sam," "Manhattan" and "Broadway Danny Rose," but from a far less romantic perspective - one blinded by neither love nor lasciviousness. Allen is a great comedy moviemaker, and here he shows us that he can tell a joke on himself as well as ever. He can stare into the abyss, show a heart breaking or a dream dying. Of course, it's like anything else; we may laugh hard at the really dark stuff.
Directed and written by Woody Allen; photographed by Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designed by Santo Loquasto; music by Cole Porter, Ravi Shankar, Jerome Kern, others; produced by Letty Aronson. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 19. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (drug use and sexual references).
Jerry Falk - Jason Biggs
David Dobel - Woody Allen
Amanda - Christina Ricci
Harvey - Danny DeVito
Paula - Stockard Channing
Brooke - KaDee Strickland