Sunday, March 22, 2009
Anything Else must be, bar none, Woody Allen's most underrated film. Perhaps because it was released right at the tail-end of his disappointing Dreamworks period — and immediately following two of his absolute worst movies — or because it prominently features an actor otherwise best known for having sex with a pie on screen, this great film has been ignored, critically maligned and lumped in with the perceived downward spiral Woody's filmmaking supposedly entered from the mid-90s onward. In fact, it's a poignant, funny, bittersweet take on love and relationships and doing what one wants in life. It's quite possibly Woody's best and most perceptive relationship film since Manhattan, a film it recalls in both its gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography and its humorous but unflinchingly honest look at the ways in which men and women in love interact. The film is also improved by Woody stepping aside, for once letting his young cast take center stage rather than trying to shoehorn himself into yet another improbable relationship with a much younger, attractive woman, as he had in recent years with Téa Leoni, Helen Hunt and Julia Roberts. In this film, the focus is on the troubled relationship between the struggling young writer Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) and his sexy but kind of crazy girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci), who drives him wild in every sense of the word.
Jerry is a typical Woody Allen character: neurotic, nervous, insecure, plagued by troubles, in psychotherapy at twenty-one and terminally afraid to break away from anything, no matter how negative its influence on his life. As he says, he's not a "leaver." That's why he's been in analysis for years, even though his therapist (William Hill) never says a word and never helps him with his problems — he's more interested in his patient's supposedly telling dreams about the Cleveland Indians working at Toys R' Us. Jerry's also trapped in an exploitative contract with an inept manager (Danny DeVito) who bleeds his client on percentages but can't get him any real work, and who has an inexplicable love for clothing store metaphors. By the same token, Jerry can't seem to give up his love for Amanda, despite the increasingly outrageous difficulties between them. They haven't slept together for months, Amanda is flighty and unfaithful, and she moves in her wreck of a mother (Stockard Channing), who's practicing to start up a new cabaret show and brings over sketchy boyfriends to snort cocaine.
The relationship between Jerry and Amanda sparks some of Woody's best comic writing, with practically every other line being a quotable gem, including some deadpan one-liners. When Jerry asks her if she still loves him, she looks at him with shock: "What a question. Just because I pull away when you touch me?" What's great about the way this relationship plays out is that Woody allows the audience to see both what's enticing and lovable and desirable about Amanda, and what's infuriating about her — and how the two qualities tend to blend into one another. She's impulsive and always up for anything, always willing to go running off on a crazy trip. When Jerry and Amanda first meet, this attracts him to her almost irresistibly; she has such an adventurous streak that when she says, in passing, that she'd love to take a trip down the Amazon, he's convinced that she means that very night. This initial meeting is mirrored with a later scene in which Amanda proposes a sudden late-night drive out to Montauk, just as she'd suggested heading to the Hamptons when she first met Jerry. The mirroring is subtle, and suggests the extent to which what drew Jerry to Amanda in the first place is now driving them apart.
It helps that Ricci embodies her character, with her strangely cute, off-kilter attractiveness, her bug eyes and crooked smile and compact body. Her casual, breezy delivery of Woody's dialogue is both appealing and maddening, like her character. She tosses off subtly ironic lines as though she doesn't see the contradictions in what she's saying, as though she sees things in a very self-evident way and expects everyone else to understand. There's a hilarious scene where she tries to explain to Jerry how sleeping with her acting teacher was just therapeutic, that she was doing it for Jerry's sake — it's ridiculous and funny as hell, but the weird thing is that one actually kind of believes her, or at least believes that she believes it. Biggs, surprisingly, is a fine comic foil for Ricci, getting off some great one-liners and portraying his character's sexual frustration with a comedic grace that doesn't take the bite off the frustration itself. A lot of the film's best scenes are both funny and uncomfortable; Woody's humor here has a real edge to it, an edge of truth that makes the laughs catch in one's throat at times. Biggs often stumbles over the top in trying to impersonate Woody, to copy his director's fumbling manner and characteristic stutter, and this can be distracting. The film is much better when Biggs tones down his Woodyisms, plays it more like the everyman he is.
For the most part, though, Biggs' performance is perfectly in key with the film's tone, and he's at his best in his interactions with Woody himself, who plays the aging, paranoiac schoolteacher David Dobel, who's making a late-in-life run at becoming a writer himself. Woody's casting of himself solidifies the sense that this is a passing-the-torch film, that Woody is consciously making the long-delayed transition from comic lead to elder statesman, the mentor figure trying to pass on his ideas to the younger generation. Dobel is a typical Woody character, stuttery and neurotic and more than a little nuts, with a real Jewish persecution complex — he's convinced that the Holocaust could be back with a vengeance any day now, and has prepared a survival kit to prepare for the eventuality. But he's also a dispenser of Woody's accumulated wisdom, which of course comes in the form of a constant stream of jokes derived from old stand-up traditions.
The film is about Jerry growing up, breaking free of the unhealthy attachments he can't seem to shake, realizing that he has to make his own way in life. It's a mature statement from the perennial jokester, but of course Woody can't help but deliver this lesson with a smile; Jerry learns about life through humor. It's part of what makes this film such a bittersweet gem. Woody is laughing at the foibles of romance, but also showing his wholehearted appreciation for the folly of love, perhaps even yearning wistfully for the innocent romanticism of Jerry's character. This film is a long distance away from the cynicism and bitter humor of some of Woody's other late films, like Celebrity or Deconstructing Harry. Anything Else doesn't share the wide-eyed naivete of Jerry, but its perspective on life and love isn't jaundiced, as evidenced by the beautiful, expressive cinematography. The portrait of New York here is as deeply romantic as the one in Manhattan, painting in moody, muted colors what the earlier film did in black and white: the oceanic blues of the sky behind a black skyline, the shifting shadows of the trees with light sifting through in Central Park. These are some of Woody's most gorgeous, affecting images in years, a beautiful counterpoint to the film's depiction of young love and the wayward path to maturity.