In the absence of any less obvious interpretation, I’ve got my own theory about the title of Woody Allen’s diminished and yellowed new comedy: Anything Else is what the writer-director asks as he remembers the golden, Oscar-winning era of ”Annie Hall” – when every joke sparkled, every line of dialogue was memorable, and Diane Keaton’s ”Hall”-wear inspired fashion trends. Is there anything else Allen can say, more than a quarter of a century later, about nebbishy, hyperarticulate men and the crazy women who arouse them, to connect with the moviegoing kids today? Maybe some reliable jokes about death and God and Jews and psychotherapy and Auschwitz – something for the new generation for whom phrases like ”dead shark” mean nothing? How about if ”Anything Else” weren’t marketed as a Woody Allen movie, but instead as a boppy Manhattan love struggle between well-known twentysomething pop actors Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci? Would that help pull in a younger demographic?
In fact, with every recycled piece of business – which is to say, every scene in ”Anything Else” – the distance widens between Allen and the elusive audience he pessimistically chases. He has never seemed less in touch with his own real, pulsing, 21st-century city, or more foppish in his references to Camus and on-the-couch psychoanalysis. I can’t imagine what a stranger to ”Annie Hall” would make of it all.
Biggs may play Jerry Falk, an aspiring comedy writer, but the actor’s gestures and stuttering, hysteria-prone delivery are worn, borrowed, 1970s Allenisms, giving Falk the appearance of a young fogey whose shrink is a silent Freudian and whose tastes run to Billie Holiday and Cole Porter. (Kenneth Branagh similarly parroted Allen’s speech patterns in ”Celebrity.”) Ricci is no Diane Keaton – her sexiness is small and tough, not lanky and kooky – but her Amanda occupies a familiar, time-warped position of unreliability, dither, and eventual sexual boredom leading to unfaithfulness. If anything, women appear to frighten and disgust the filmmaker even more in the new millennium: While Amanda tortures her boyfriend with an acrid combination of narcissism and self-hatred, simultaneously whining about how ”fat” she is and fancying herself a femme fatale, Amanda’s mother, played by Stockard Channing, is a boozy, pushy, man-hungry tornado of middle-aged demands.
”Anything Else” is about the romantic difficulties between Falk (who is always called Falk) and Amanda, with commentary by Allen as Falk’s crotchety friend and mentor, David Dobel (who is always called Dobel). It’s also about the creative difficulties between Allen and the city he clearly loves – only more in memory than in reality. Shot in a style that could either be called 1970s-nostalgia-fade or imprecise-low-budget-blotchiness and filled with long, static takes in which characters recite worn aphorisms (Dobel calls Falk’s schlemiel of a manager, played by Danny DeVito, a ”member of the lost tribes of Israel who should stay lost”), the movie trails malaise in its wake. A scene in which Amanda’s mother toots cocaine off the cover of Falk’s laptop is dust compared with Alvy Singer’s cocaine sneeze back in 1977, and I miss Alvy every time Biggs’ Falk turns to talk to the camera.
”Idiots who are total losers in New York go to Los Angeles and become millionaires,” Dobel tells Falk. Not with comedies like this one.