- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

Woody Allen has probably revamped his comic persona more frequently than fans realize over the course of a movie writing-directing-starring career that has averaged almost a feature a year since “Take the Money and Run” was released in 1969. His tailor-made reinvention in the new “Anything Else” as the solicitous and possibly deranged kibitzer called David Dobel, a garrulous schoolteacher who moonlights as a comedy writer, heralds an exceptionally clever self-promotion to emeritus status as a character actor.

If nothing else, “Anything Else” neutralizes criticism of Mr. Allen for continuing to cast himself, at 66, as a romantic comedy lead opposite leading ladies young enough to be his daughter. Or in the case of Christina Ricci — “Anything Else’s” thoroughly amoral Amanda, an aspiring actress and shameless deceiver — young enough to be his granddaughter.

The peculiarly argumentative, endearing and elusive Dobel, who might have stepped into this movie from the pages of a Mordecai Richler or Philip Roth novel, functions as a kind of fairy godfather to the Cinderfella romantic hero and narrator: Jason Biggs as a contemporary variation on the vintage Woody Allen persona called Jerry Falk.

An earnest and promising young comedy writer in New York, Jerry is a hostage to his own timidities and boyish sense of loyalty. He’s such a pushover that sponging types are attracted to him like bees to honey. Amanda is revealed to be the blithely opportunistic queen bee, but there are some conspicuous drones: a stolid psychoanalyst (William Hill), a complacent agent named Harvey (Danny DeVito) and Amanda’s incorrigible, freeloading mother Paula (Stockard Channing), who moves in along with her piano and expects Jerry to supply patter for a nightclub gig.



During the course of the movie, Jerry accounts for this burdensome collection of intimates, often confiding directly, a la “Annie Hall,” to the movie audience. He resists acting in his own best interests until more or less bullied out of lingering, apologetic inertia by Dobel, whose shock tactics include an excursion to New Jersey in order to outfit the pacific Jerry with a weapon and a survival kit.

The abundant fun to be had from Jerry and Dobel’s frequent and enjoyable conversations is thrown into relief by Sofia Coppola’s engaging but reticent “Lost in Translation.” No one in Mr. Allen’s movie is at a loss for words. So much dialogue surges out of the characters that “Anything Else” seems to be overcompensating for the shortcomings of “Lost in Translation.”

Ironically, Miss Coppola’s movie does look more accomplished.

Her response to Tokyo demonstrates a pictorial wit and variety that elude Mr. Allen while locating characters in Manhattan for the umpteenth time. A new cinematographer, Darius Khondji, a specialist in the sinister (“Seven,” “In Dreams,” “Panic Room”), seems to misconstrue the amused optimism of “Anything Else.” Several episodes favor a tint that seems to suggest that Jerry is looking at Amanda through rose-colored glasses. No doubt, but it threatens to become a permanent condition only in the movie’s stilted color schemes.

Apart from one delightful resort to a three-panel composition, the need for a wide-screen format in “Anything Else” is dubious. A smaller canvas and a crisp black-and-white stock might have harmonized with the fable more effectively. Jerry seems to be recalling this chapter of his life in clearsighted tranquillity. We’re not meant to confuse him with a helpless pushover or a permanently heartbroken suitor. The song selections, which commence with a Billie Holiday vocal on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” provide much sharper ironic reinforcement than the look of the movie.

Jason Biggs proves an admirable choice as Mr. Allen’s youthful substitute. In addition to the requisite verbal timing and facility, he contributes an unemphatic flair for physical comedy that improves incidental moments, such as Jerry’s nervousness when camped outside Amanda’s apartment for a first date.

Mr. Allen has a wonderful interlude of pantomime futility when Dobel is asked to help move Paula’s piano, which refuses to budge in the slightest. It’s a suitably deceptive sight gag for a comedy that demonstrates how adroitly Woody Allen can shift his own posture.

***1/2

TITLE: “Anything Else”

RATING: R (Occasional sexual candor and vulgarity; an episode depicting drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Production design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Laura Jean Shannon

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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