Woody Allen and cinematographer extraordinaire Darius Khondji have made five films together thus far, and yet, despite the fact that this run is Allen’s most consistently beautiful aesthetic run since the Gordon Willis days, the quality level has been variable (although that could all change with the arrival of the can’t-miss hit of the summer, Irrational Man). But while Magic in the Moonlight and To Rome With Love didn’t set the world on fire, they were Oscar winners compared to Allen and Khondji’s first collaboration, Anything Else. It appealed to few, if any, at them, with many Allen fans deeming it a younger knock-off of Annie Hall and the American Pie crowd (who DreamWorks tried to market to, right down to only including Allen’s name in the ads like it was a side effect of seeing the movie) rejecting it wholesale. It’s still looked down upon as one of, if not the worst film Allen has ever made. But, as always, the more fervent detractors were off-base, and they were missing something that was much more than a rehash of previous glories.
The Annie Hall comparison makes sense only in that both films are about a guy (Jerry, played by Jason Biggs) falling in love with a unique, quirky girl (Amanda, played by Christina Ricci). But the comparisons end there, with this film looking more like Husbands and Wives: The Younger Days. While it’s simple to understand why Alvy Singer would fall for Annie Hall (short answer: everything about her), from her introduction on, Amanda is a walking sign reading “WHY IS THIS GUY IN LOVE WITH ME?” (sure enough, soon after we meet her, we get an explanation to that question in the form of a long flashback). Jerry is so blinded to her variety of faults (which range from taking diet pills for a nonexistent weight problem, cleaning out their kitchen of food right before they’re supposed to go for dinner, and having an affair) that this Woody Allen surrogate needs the real Woody Allen (playing a joke-writer named Dobel) to straighten things out for him. This is problematic in its own right, because Dobel is actually a crazy person.
As evidenced from the synopsis above, this is an incredibly curdled film. Coming off of three straight no-bullshit comedies (mandated by DreamWorks’ contract with Allen), this feels like Allen working through past demons (he’s said that this is the film of his that most effectively captures him as a person) and issues with his previous work more than making a lighthearted trip to the movies. More films than just Annie Hall and Husbands and Wives haunt the proceedings here. Danny DeVito is Jerry’s agent, and he plays his character as Danny Rose with the tact and lovability of Frank Reynolds. Stockard Channing is Amanda’s mom, a wannabe lounge singer, and she plays her with the drama of Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway but with no talent to show for her primadonna actions. And Allen plays Dobel as a typical Woody Allen character with the wackiest attributes magnified to 400x. If you thought Alvy Singer believing that that guy said “Did Jew eat?” was strange, Dobel accuses someone at a nightclub of looking directly at him and Jerry and saying “Jews start all wars”. And then he encourages Jerry to buy a rifle to keep away the people who want to see harm done to the Jewish race. And then he smashes an antisemite’s car with a crowbar. And then he straight-up murders someone. And as if that wasn’t enough, Allen brings back the 2.35:1 photography of Manhattan and the gorgeously warm colors of his and Khondji’s color films (Christina Ricci looks almost as luminous under Khondji’s light as Marion Cotillard did in The Immigrant) and uses it to underscore these awful proceedings like cheerful jazz music over misery (he uses cheerful jazz music too). I cannot say for sure that this is Woody’s big post-9/11 movie, but it feels that way. All that love and nostalgia for this city has been depleted and replaced with bitter feelings and even more bitter people. It’s no wonder Allen shifted to London two years after.
I should probably also mention that it’s funny. It would be one thing if it was just an exercise in bitterness, but this is an amusing exercise in bitterness. While Amanda can certainly be seen as a complete shrew (I can’t say I’d go out of my way to defend the character against such accusations), at least Allen explains Jerry’s attraction to her and makes her funny, which is more than can be said about poor Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris. Biggs starts off stiff and unconvincing, but he seems to grow more comfortable as the film goes along, and by the end, he’s selling the lines pretty hard. DeVito and Channing steal their scenes, but Allen is the one who really makes an impression here. He’s at the top of his game, getting all the best lines in the movie and getting major laughs out of the incongruity of seeing nebbish Woody Allen wax poetic/paranoid about the need to stock up on survival materials that can float in water. It shares a major problem with many of the other films Allen made at the time, which is that it needs a trim by a good 10 minutes or so (Allen seemed to lose the gift of brevity around this period), and yes, spending time with Amanda does get tiresome eventually, but this is a movie that deserves much more than being put in the dustbin to be forgotten about at best. It’s certainly a lot more deserving of leaving any memory than the goddamn Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
(Anything Else can be purchased on DVD, and there’s a good chance that your local Half Price Books or Disc Replay has about three copies of it for sale. It’s the movie equivalent of R.E.M.’s Monster in that way.)