BY LYNN LEE
Woody Allen gets a pretty bad rap these days. His critics, many of them former fans, grumble that he’s lost his touch; that his once-impeccable ear for dialogue has turned to tin; that he’s become more bitter but less funny in his old age. Many squirm at the sight of an increasingly shriveled Woody canoodling onscreen with the Hollywood belle du jour. Yet they complain equally loudly whenever he casts another actor to play the part of a Woody Allen lead. Damned if you are, damned if you aren’t.
“Anything Else,” Woody’s latest, falls into the latter category, and the carping is more or less justified: nobody but Woody Allen can really play Woody Allen, and Jason Biggs (he of “American Pie” fame, or at least notoriety) is emphatically no Woody Allen. Yet there are two things you can nearly always count on in an Allen movie, which this one supplies with a reasonable amount of finesse: 1) it will make you laugh, and 2) it will be a love song to New York.
Biggs plays a comic writer named Jerry Falk who has a serious problem getting out of relationships. He’s saddled with an incompetent agent (Danny DeVito) who overcharges him, a useless shrink who won’t respond to him, an impossible girlfriend (Christina Ricci) who won’t sleep with him, and her equally impossible mother (an amusingly blowsy Stockard Channing) who moves into Falk’s apartment as the first step in re-starting her life as a lounge singer, yet he somehow can’t dump any of them. Then he meets Dobel (Woody), a fellow comic writer who seems to be afflicted with an acute, though controlled, form of persecution mania. Although Jerry can’t quite decide whether the man is a sage or a lunatic, Dobel becomes a mentor to him, urging him to take charge of his life and ditch all the human baggage he’s accumulated.
Much of the movie’s focus is not, however, on Dobel, but on Jerry’s relationship with his girlfriend, Amanda, who is pretty much every guy’s worst nightmare times ten. Manipulative, deceitful, capricious and utterly self-centered, she’s the kind of girl who chain-smokes, pops diet pills like candy and continually asks Jerry if she’s fat, yet cleans out the refrigerator before arriving (an hour late) for their anniversary dinner. Most distressing of all is her moratorium on sex, at least with Jerry, which has lasted for six months and counting. Yet she’s also the kind of girl men find irresistible.
Ricci’s pretty good as the drama queen. Unfortunately, while Biggs tries gamely to retool Woody for the “American Pie” generation, it just doesn’t work. There are moments – in particular, the early scenes in which he first woos Amanda – where you can just see Woody in the role, hear his voice in the beat of the lines, yet coming from Biggs’s mouth, the timing, the inflection, even the body language just isn’t there. Worse still, while there’s more than a thread of misogyny in the scripting of Amanda’s character, there’s a far more disturbing flatness to Jerry’s which makes their interactions increasingly tedious and difficult to sit through. “Annie Hall” this ain’t.
Tellingly, the movie’s best scenes are those between Jerry and Dobel. Woody is in fine form as he takes his young protégé through multiple walks in the park (Central Park has never looked better) and tries to teach him how to live. This sounds dull, except that Dobel’s lessons include forcing Jerry to acquire a survival kit and a Russian rifle – to be kept loaded under the bed. Dobel, it seems, has a violent streak, which he demonstrates beautifully in a pitch-perfect scene involving a car, a golf club and two huge thugs. With any other filmmaker, I’d wonder if the shift from neurotic to psychotic archetype signaled some deep-lying personal frustration, but here, I just laughed my ass off.
Which just goes to show that despite everything, there’s still a place in today’s cinematic universe for Woody Allen. Only Woody could make a psychopathic “snap” B la Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” gut-bustingly hilarious. And only Woody could make Manhattan not just beautiful, but homelike: Woody Allen’s New York is familiar by now, and downright cozy. Maybe New Yorkers of Jerry’s and Amanda’s age in real life don’t go hear Diana Krall sing standards in a low-ceilinged lounge, or browse old Billie Holiday records, or hold pretentious conversations about Humphrey Bogart. But in Woody’s universe, they do. And there’s something about that universe, rarefied as it is, that even the carping critics would miss if it were to disappear. “Anything Else,” if nothing else, shows there’s still life left in it.