Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Woody Allen, Stockard Channing, Danny DeVito, KaDee Strickland, Jimmy Fallon, Fisher Stevens, Anthony Arkin, Diana Krall, William Hill, David Conrad, Joseph Lyle Taylor
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of drug use and some sexual references
Running Time: 108
Date: 08/27/2003

Anything Else (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Anything' Goes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not long ago, audiences could look to Woody Allen movies for love poems, cozy, nostalgia-drenched humor, and the occasional hard glimpse into the inner workings of neurotic relationships -- all wrapped up in a beautiful New York package shot by the latest brilliant international cinematographer.

As a comic filmmaker, he has created at least half a dozen masterworks, and all of them go down easy with a warm, satisfying aftertaste.

This latest Allen, beginning with Deconstructing Harry in 1997, has shown a mean, nasty side. And not a cool, black leather-type nasty, either. It's an unpleasant kind of nasty. Perhaps film scholars of the future will make something fascinating out of this period, but here and now it's a difficult time for us lifelong fans.

In Anything Else Allen appears in a supporting role, as Dobel, a kind of disgruntled mentor figure to a young comedy writer, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs). During their afternoon discussions, Jerry tells him all about his neurotic relationship with the sexy Amanda (Christina Ricci), who hasn't slept with him in six months.

The movie pivots back and forth between Jerry's friendship with the increasingly unstable Dobel, and his relationship with the increasingly frustrating Amanda. To make matters worse, Amanda's narcissistic mother (Stockard Channing) moves into their tiny apartment -- packing a rented piano.

If the relationship made up the heart of Anything Else, along with some of Dobel's good-natured advice ("never trust a naked bus driver"), this would have been Allen's warmest concoction in years. But Dobel's violent side, which includes an obsession with guns and the Holocaust as well as a few onscreen and offscreen blowups, cools the picture considerably.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en) gives us -- if I'm not mistaken -- Allen's first Cinemascope picture since Manhattan and does a beautiful job with that lovely New York glow that makes you want to move there. At one point, Jerry and his friends head down to the Village Vanguard on a whim to catch Diana Krall's latest show, and it's the best seat in the house.

It's a bit of a relief to see Allen step out of the lead role, though Biggs is somewhat of an uninspired choice. It's the best role he's ever had, but a dozen other actors would have been better. (And why does Allen waste a small role on, of all people, Jimmy Fallon?)

Christina Ricci, on the other hand, proves spectacular in all her adorable, mysterious, disturbed bliss. She nails it, adding her name to the long list of great female performances in Allen's films.

And, above all, Anything Else still has that gut-busting intellectual Allen wit. At least three great one-liners emerge into the light of day, which is three more than any other movie this year.

Will Allen come out the other side and find the gentle, romantic side of life once more? Anything Else gives us a bit of hope, but we're not quite there yet.

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