With the exception of Bergman-inspired chamber dramas and Fellini-inspired magical realism, Woody Allen's films are usually viewed as comedies. Yet in spite of Marx Brothers slapstick, intellectual wit and Catskills rimshots, the comedy in a Woody Allen film often plays second fiddle to Allen himself. That is, the never-ending neuroses, adultery, Dostoevsky references and suspiciously clean New York City streets are as Woody as any pratfall or tart one-liner. As a result, the man has transcended comedy to become his own genre, and what's surprising about Anything Else is how it wreaks havoc with that genre's most precious icon: Woody himself.
Like its distant cousin Deconstructing Harry, Anything Else is best understood by the unpopular stance of admitting a distinction between Woody Allen the man and Woody Allen the character. Harry deconstructs the man, begging forgiveness for any links between his art and the tabloids. Seemingly in response, Anything Else deconstructs the character, giving us a grim view of who he might become.
The Woody character is staple in Allen's films, and has been portrayed by a number of people besides Allen, running from hilarious and original (John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway and Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown) to vulgar mimickry (Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity). In Anything Else, the Woody character is Jerry Falk, a 21-year-old comedy writer. Naturally, he is bookish and forever in therapy, loving women more as a concept of beauty than as people, and struggling with how the intricacies of commitment impinge on an already fragile identity.
Jerry could be Annie Hall's Alvy Singer 20 years younger, just more into commitment and bad at quitting on anyone, be it his pathetic agent (Danny DeVito), his noncommunicative shrink or any girl. As the film opens, we learn that Jerry has fostered a relationship with an aspiring comedy writer, David Dobel (Allen himself), a miserable public school teacher 40 years Jerry's senior. The relationship does not play to mentor-student expectations, however; David is the antithesis of the Woody character. Yes, he is a well-read genius who uses such words as hebetudinous and is paranoid about anti-Semitism. But he is also vehemently anti-psychoanalysis and anti-intellectual, given to using firearms and of the belief that Los Angeles is actually a good place for writers. For David, life is not summed up by quoting Freud or Kant but by quoting a cab driver: "You know, it's like anything else."
The rest of the story involves Jerry's dying relationships: with his agent, his shrink and primarily his flighty live-in girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci). Amanda, like Jerry, has an older counterpart in her mother Paula (Stockard Channing), who could be the nightclub singer she wants to be if only she'd grow up and leave her daughter's nest. What follows in the relationship between Amanda and Jerry is one of the "I love her but she's crazy but I love her but this relationship is a dead shark" stories that comprise so much of the Woody Allen genre.
And just as you get comfortable, the film subverts that same genre. If Jerry is a younger, idealistic Alvy Singer, then David is an aged, disillusioned Alvy, dumped by Annie and on a maddening downward spiral. David could be the bleakest character Allen has played, even more so than the pill-popping, whoring Harry. He is the worst side of the Woody character, stripped of most humor, genuinely antisocial and resistant to help from doctors or a friend like Jerry. He comes off as having all the answers to life, but it's a life that exists in his own paranoid mind.
So the Jerry and David conversations become warning sessions, not just between a ranting coot and an upstart kid but also between different generations of the same Woody. David in his 60s is telling Jerry in his 20s to avoid all the mistakes Alvy made at 40 — after all, look where it got him. Thus therapy is bad. Thus Los Angeles is salvation. Thus Jerry should drop the girl and move on. Or else. David and Jerry seem to be Woody the man's chance to clean up some of Woody the character's psychological baggage.
Similarly, though to a much lesser extent, Channing's Paula could be a burnt-out Annie Hall, back in New York after failing in LA and hanging on to some false ideal of youth. This makes her the grown-up mirror of Amanda, or Woody's archetypal foil, the Kamikaze Woman. It's an interesting parallel that doesn't play out much more than in jokes on mother-daughter role reversal, the idea being that Amanda is warning Paula as David is warning Jerry. Ricci's spot-on Woody Allen timing (while waltzing around in her underwear, no less) is impressive, but her character, while certainly one of the more entertaining, flails toward the end — unfortunately, women are rarely the actual fabric of the Woody Allen genre. They tend to be embroidery.
As David, Allen deserves more props than he will ever get. Not just funny, but truly complex, it's more of a performance stretch than when he whisper-sang in Everyone Says I Love You. Plus, he finally gets to demonstrate what child psychologists call "acting out." Allen, two meatheads and a crowbar — it's sweet revenge 60-some years in the making.
Ever the European art film geek, Allen sums up the story's point of view in a line of dialogue that obliquely references Luis Buñuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It occurs, appropriately enough, outside a movie theater, but in a very Woody turn it is an arbitrary extra who gets the line. In alluding to Buñuel's existential view of social mores — that we ludicrously stick to them against better judgment — Allen makes a very David-esque comment about Jerry's lack of action in life. It's a highfalutin' riff designed to be missed by many, but it helps deflate the biggest myths about Woody Allen the character: that Woody Allen the man likes him, much less is him.
"But is it funny?" someone wants to know.
For a Woody Allen movie, you know, it's like anything else.
— Tony Nigro (email@example.com)