All the Wrong Moves
Jeff Reichert on Anything Else

We’re some forty years into the career of Woody Allen, America’s most consistent—and perhaps consistently undervalued—filmmaker, and it’s become almost impossible for cinephiles, and even casual movie connoisseurs, to abstain from participating in the annual combing-over of his oeuvre that accompanies his each new release. Which one’s the best? Which one’s the worst? How about a complete ranking from #1 to #41? (Spend five seconds on Google, and you’ll find a few.) It’s almost a sport. I recently passed a soused evening at a party separating the wheat from the chaff via pithy one-liners with a group of similarly Allen-versed comrades. It took some time—it’s easy to forget how many Woody Allen movies you’ve seen until you actively try to remember them all.

It should be noted that Allen holds an entirely unique economic position amongst currently practicing filmmakers: he cranks out new movies yearly and each receives nationwide release in semi-commercial venues, while the entirety of his back catalogue remains in print and readily available. So while Midnight in Paris rakes in the dough, re-establishing Allen as a commercial force about two and a half decades since anyone cared to imagine him as such, his other forty films are all out there and ripe for the picking (currently Netflix is streaming about a dozen and has the entire oeuvre up for rental), a rare completist’s utopia. It begs exploration: if you’ve known him primarily as the comedic force behind the winsome Annie Hall and Manhattan, take a trip through his darker late eighties/early nineties heights—September, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives. Gave up on the man around Mighty Aphrodite? There’s been plenty to admire in his work, pre- and post-Match Point. So what if you’ve heard The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is awful—it’s only 103 minutes . . .

There are only two Allen films out of the whole gaggle I actively dislike end-to-end, giving the Wood-man a pretty astounding .956 batting average. This places me in a small minority of folks who find his neo–borscht belt features Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Scoop winningly cheesy and frequently funny, and who find September and Interiors successful personal expressions of his Bergmania. There’s nothing wrong with the early funny ones either. I can even go to bat for films like Cassandra’s Dream, Celebrity, and Shadows and Fog—not great works by any stretch, but all skillfully rendered at the level of basic craft and offering flashes of those things we look to Woody Allen for: smart, literate humor; penetrating psychological insight; a coherent philosophical worldview pliable enough to account for and chart both the ups and downs of human existence with equal doses apathy and empathy. Finding a Woody Allen film completely lacking in all of these crucial areas is difficult, unless you dare subject yourself to his terrible twosome from the early aughts, Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, the worst films from the weakest stretch of his career.

This issue is called “Simply the Worst,” so I am, somewhat sadly, beholden to nominate one title only. I’ll give the edge to Anything Else. Melinda and Melinda’s an awkward stew of clichés about the vagaries of fate featuring a painfully unfunny Will Ferrell and a befuddled Radha Mitchell, but its bifurcated structure shows Allen is still game for some cinematic gamesmanship even as he tiptoes into his dotage. It’s an unsuccessful attempt at something, and I’d argue some of the film’s if/what-then fantasizing informed the core machinery of Match Point’s dark determinism. By comparison, Anything Else is a fart (not farce), one that starts innocuously with Woody telling a couple of decent stories about comic legends of yore (shades of Broadway Danny Rose’s framing device) before it expands into a noxious cloud that snuffs out all life it touches, monster movie–style; at the very least, it kills my will to keep slogging through to the end of its 109 minutes.

Anything Else has been labeled by some as an attempt on Allen’s part to bring his artistry to a more youthful market, but I wouldn’t give him that much credit for business savvy, or interest in much of anything that’s happened past the 1950s (the fault for this perception should go to DreamWorks—for a laugh, image search their teen-friendly poster). His tale of an aspiring writer, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), saddled with a bad manager (Danny DeVito), a bad shrink, and the worst girlfriend ever (Christina Ricci), may feature young’uns in the leads, but their talk and actions and concerns suggest they might have been better played by Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest circa 1987. Jerry uses a laptop, but he seduces Amanda by taking her shopping for records; both are seemingly oblivious to the onset of the digital music era yet are also clearly not hip enough to be true crate diggers. Allen’s work has always been tinted by nostalgia for the days of radio, and, at least since Sweet and Lowdown, his films have had an almost aggressively backwards-looking cast (interrogated fully and smartly in Midnight in Paris). The young characters spouting the 21st-century Allen ethos in Anything Else don’t seem to have lived enough to have earned their neuroses and hang-ups, their longing for imagined pasts, their immaculately constructed sentences. From twentysomething mouths, the words just come out wrong.

It doesn’t help that the mouths chosen for interpreting a script that ages them beyond their years belong to Biggs and Ricci, two of the lesser talents of their generation. Biggs is Anything Else’s Allen surrogate, always a thankless job, especially for an unimaginative or unskilled actor. (By comparison, Owen Wilson’s slack, drawling delivery in Paris recast the Allen neurotic in a warmer light; the technical interpretation carried out by Celebrity’s Kenneth Branagh raises mimicry to the level of art). The schlubby avatar of the American Pie franchise is not at all up to the task, attempting to copy Allen’s whiny, sing-songy delivery but his flapping mouth (set low in his unnaturally long rectangular head, lending him the aspect of a nutcracker) ends up emitting only a pitiful, jagged stutter. It doesn’t help that Anything Else is an Allen script that asks its protagonist to address the audience on occasion, an interaction that Biggs seems even less comfortable undertaking than playing against his fellow performers. He’s the ultimate wet noodle. Ricci fares somewhat better, I suppose, but only in comparison to Biggs and in relation to what Amanda is required to be. An odd scene where she’s filmed at length wearing only white panties and t-shirt, nipples resplendent, seems to showcase the assets Allen felt most relevant to the scene (what happened to Allen women in shoulder pads, blazers, and memorable hats?); another, where she undergoes a medical examination as her breasts practically spill out of a slinky black bra into the hands of a handsome doctor, furthers a sense that her casting was based on well, aesthetics, and that her character is only that in name only.

Though Anything Else’s central drama—concerning a couple gone frigid towards each other— isn’t unfamiliar terrain for Allen, it’s made less credible here by the mere fact that Biggs and Ricci seem as though they don’t like each other much onscreen, and don’t really convince that they ever could have liked each other, save for a few goofy close-ups of the pair in a flashback recalling how they first met (this is the odd Allen film where the close-up is sprinkled liberally throughout; shooting anamorphic for the second time in his career only highlights the odd choice). Jerry’s increasingly desperate attempts to connect with his lady leads the pair to a hotel room in an effort to rekindle their amour, but as soon as the lights go down and the awkward writer makes his creepy, just-this-side-of-coercive move, Amanda goes haywire. It’s hysterical, but not in a funny way. Jerry’s relationships with his loser manager and useless shrink complete the triumvirate of people holding the young scribe back from realizing his dreams as a writer and lover, and provide marginally larger comedic returns—the running gag of a shrink that doesn’t talk never gets too old in Allen’s hands, and a bravura late-film faux heart attack played by DeVito reminds us why he’s an actor worth watching. But with Ricci little more than a borderline misogynist prop, the film progresses listlessly through a scenario that Allen seems to have concocted only so that he can introduce the phrase “anything else” into his lexicon of life aphorisms, and more and more weight falls on poor Biggs’s shoulders. The center cannot hold.

It’s often the case that when Woody fails his material, one of his performers will step up to the plate and eke out a small, redemptive victory. I’m thinking here of Colin Farrell in Cassandra’s Dream, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Patricia Clarkson in Whatever Works, Michael Rappaport in Mighty Aphrodite. Here, the unlikely hero worth rooting for is played by Allen himself. The sight of his loony nutcase David Dobel awkwardly smashing the windows of a car that stole his parking space is funny stuff indeed—it’s perhaps the only time in Allen’s entire filmography that he’s allowed himself full release from paralyzing neuroses on camera (his potty-mouthed scribe Harry Block from Deconstructing Harry only got off verbally), and it’s a cathartic victory for nerds and little guys everywhere. It’s sad that Dobel, a simultaneously wise mentor figure and completely unstable gun-obsessed paranoiac, one of Allen’s best creations, slums it in a movie completely devoid of the rich characters his successful films were overstocked with (how many terrific performances circulate in Hannah and Her Sisters? Five? Six?). But it’s a sharp reminder that great filmmakers even in their most dire, least creative moments almost never abandon their good instincts entirely.

No less than Quentin Tarantino has rated Anything Else amongst the great films of the past two decades, a declamation that piqued my interested in returning to it after years of accumulated scorn. I enjoyed becoming reacquainted with Allen’s batshit turn, the one point of clear unadulterated pleasure this “comedy” provides. DP Darius Khondji’s sun-kissed imagery is another example of why Allen is New York’s visual chronicler par excellence—interior and exteriors alike are suffused with an inviting golden glow. Though the film’s main problems stem from casting gone awry, it’s too easy to just stop there. Staking a film on the philosophical position, “It’s like anything else,” a mantra repeated at the picture’s open and close, is a bunt at best, and a far intellectual cry from “whatever works” (seemingly tossed off, but rather fundamental to Allen’s career and worldview). It suggests a film that got churned out on the down and dirty, with all parties in on the take. Even Stockard Channing, a Woody Allen heroine just waiting in the wings, seems barely interested. The ending, in which Jerry, heading off to take a writing gig set up for him in Los Angeles by Dobel (who stays on the East Coast as he’s allegedly shot a police officer and is on the lam—the fantastical ambiguity surrounding this off-screen act hints at the better film a crazed Dobel-mentor-figure could have occupied), spies Amanda canoodling on the street with the handsy doctor from earlier in the film, is at least a pleasant shrug.

For an artist whose body of work is often derided for being shockingly consistent (at worst, copycat—of himself, and his European idols), it’s amazing the amount of different things Allen has tried through his career. Remember the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite? The portentous, theatrical blackout in September? The free-flowing memory-play in the middle of Another Woman? The harrowing documentary interviews throughout Husbands and Wives? The entirety of Zelig? It seems that few would call Woody Allen a stylistic innovator, but they might actually be wrong. He may borrow readily, but when these appropriations are filtered through his unique perspective and set of talents, they almost always come out Allen. Unfortunately, there’s no style, no wit, no risk, no playfulness, and barely a soupçon’s-worth of insight on display in Anything Else. In my relationship with Woody Allen, familiarity often breeds content. How else to explain my fondness for the hokey, obvious Tinseltown satire Hollywood Ending? Anything Else couldn’t have been made by anyone but Allen—the concerns of the dialogue, the milieu, the occasional joke that lands are clear expression of his voice. Yet I can’t stand it, and I can’t dismiss my wish that it had been made by someone else. It shows how thin the divide between a good Woody Allen movie and a bad Woody Allen movie can be, but, on the bright side, reminds just how consistently he steers onto the right side of the line.