Woody Allen’s new romantic comedy, “Anything Else,” which occupied the coveted position of opening-night selection at the 60th annual Venice International Film Festival, would be a lot funnier if the jokes hadn’t been heard countless times before in the writer-director’s earlier, better works.
Those hoping for a return to the halcyon days of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” or even the less accomplished but still funny era of “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” will be sorely disappointed. The film isn’t terrible (which is always damning with faint praise), so commercial prospects fall within the usual limited Allen box office range.
The Allen persona has become a character in itself, a staple of the filmmaker’s comedies even when he casts somebody else in the role, as he did with Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity” and John Cusack in “Bullets.” In “Anything Else,” his persona assumes two leading roles, one played by Jason Biggs, the other by Allen himself. Biggs plays Jerry Falk, a writer just starting to get noticed in town (Manhattan, of course), who is smitten with selfish but seductive aspiring actress Amanda (Ricci) the moment he lays eyes on her. After the initial chase, Amanda couldn’t care less about Jerry, a fact to which he, of course, prefers to remain oblivious.
When not trying to rekindle Amanda’s interest in him or acting as peacemaker between his beloved and her mother, Laura (Stockard Channing), who has moved in with the couple against Jerry’s wishes, the too-nice Jerry divides his time between his manager, Harvey (Danny DeVito), an optimistic has-been who may never actually have been, and his new best friend, former comedy writer David Dobel (Allen). Dobel, who is convinced that he and Jerry would make a great writing team, urges Jerry to dump Amanda, leave New York and head with him to Hollywood, where they’ll take the sitcom industry by storm.
While sure to have its supporters (the Venice crowd laughed appreciatively in the appropriate places), there is nothing to set this work apart from any number of mediocre Allen films. Ricci gives a phlegmatic, mannered performance, while Biggs is better, even ingratiating at times, but seems hamstrung by the possibly self-imposed responsibility of mimicking the Allen persona’s distinctive speech patterns and cadence. As in most Allen films, all the characters are consumed with their own desires and problems and have scant time for anyone else. With few positive personality attributes to counter all the negative ones, it has become increasingly difficult to muster much sympathy or even interest in any of his characters.
And what would an Allen film be without a strict Freudian analyst and intimations of an alleged worldwide conspiracy against the Jews? Probably better, but they seem as much a part of his films as the stammering, neurotic protagonist.