Anything Else is the last film in the DVD box set of Woody Allen’s Dreamworks pictures. I was looking forward to getting back into watching his films again after a holiday, and was especially looking forward to watching this film again because it is so contentious. For some, it is often called out as being Woody’s worst film. Yet for others, including Quentin Tarantino of all people, it is considered one of the filmmaker’s best.
The story concerns Jerry (Jason Biggs), an emerging comedy writer struggling with the remoteness and infidelity of his girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci), the amateurishness of his agent (Danny DeVito), and the strange lessons in life he receives from his mentor, David (Allen). The film is mostly about fear, as Jerry is unable to sever his relationship with any of these destructive figures, even when Amanda’s behaviour becomes more and more outrageous (she moves her diva mother, Stockard Channing, into their tiny apartment at one point) or when David buys him a survival kit to prepare for the end of the world.
Unlike the previous tired comedies, Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending, Anything Else is a return to Woody dealing with relationships and presenting interesting characters. Even if those characters are completely unbelievable, totally abstract figures which bear no similarity to how real people think, talk or act, at least here they are clearly part of a storyteller’s vision. There is an odd tone to this film, and I don’t it is an accident that we see characters leaving a screening of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel at one point. For a long time no other character interacts with David Dobel, which gives rise to the suggestion that he may be imaginary – that is until later in the film when some characters do meet him.
In fact there is so much about this film which seems just slightly off-kilter. It has the distinction of having the worst poster art for a Woody Allen movie, with a design that makes it look like a typical teenage romantic comedy. Indeed the trailer barely mentioned its writer-director, instead focusing on its two stars. It also doesn’t look like any previous Woody Allen film. Shot in summer and in glorious anamorphic widescreen by Darius Khondji, this is the most colourful version of New York that Woody has shown us yet.
This film is also the point which marks Woody moving to the periphery of his own movies. Here he is a supporting player, and in subsequent films he more often than not would not act in his own films at all. Even when he does appear here, his character is far more odd and far less endearing that we are used to. When Dobel takes revenge on some thugs by attacking their car, it is much less funny than a similar scene in The Big Lebowski. Is this Woody’s post-9/11 movie? There is certainly a lot of talk about unrest in the world, and, again, a bubbling undercurrent of fear.
But despite being slightly unrecognisable, Anything Else still has enough hallmarks to peg it as a Woody Allen film. The main character is a writer. The main character narrates. There is great importance given to the interpretation of jokes. As such there is much for a Woody Allen fan to enjoy here, however where this film falters, for me, is its use of point-of-view. As a main character, Jerry reacts instead of acts. This creates wonderful supporting characters, but it means that the story is stuck at the pace of its lead who is never able to take action.
It also means that the character of Amanda is never really given a chance to exist without Jerry, with the result that she comes across as the most unforgivably disastrous girlfriend imaginable. An interesting comparison character is the one played by Dianne Wiest in Hanna And Her Sisters, who is also an emotional wreck but who is a far more rounded figure as she has more screen time, and so we understand her motivations a little better. However this isn’t one of Woody’s mosaic films – this is a straight linear story (with just a couple of flashbacks) that he tells through the eyes of Jerry.
I don’t love Anything Else but I also can’t reject it as the worst Woody Allen film ever. Unlike the previous few comedies (which is not to say this one isn’t funny), this film has things to say. It might fumble those things, and it might not all hang together, and it’s certainly not working on a level as, say, Manhattan. But it does intrigue and resonate, which is not something his previous few films were able to accomplish.
Next week: Melinda and Melinda