The print ads for Woody Allen’s Anything Else make it look like a picture for the American Pie crowd, but the movie itself, beginning with Billie Holiday’s voice over the credits, is still rampantly Woodyish. After a string of critical and commercial flops, Allen is clearly courting a younger audience, but the courtship doesn’t go very far. He’s cast Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Wedding, as aspiring comedy writer Jerry Falk, but Biggs is essentially playing the standard neurotic Woody Allen persona. As is often the case with Allen’s lead actors, both male and female, Biggs moves and sounds a lot like his director. (Mia Farrow often assumed Allen’s cadences and mannerisms in her movies with him, and Kenneth Branagh, in Celebrity, executed what might charitably be called an homage.) Allen has often been praised for his work with actors, but all these clones reflect a martinet’s hand.
In Anything Else, the clonishness of Biggs’s performance is amplified by Allen’s presence in the movie. He plays a supporting role as Jerry’s sometime mentor, David Dobel, a schoolteacher who doesn’t have the nerve to quit his job and take up comedy writing full-time. When these two are kibbitzing on benches in Central Park or cruising the streets in David’s red Porsche, it’s as if we were watching a string-puller with his marionette. No doubt some of this is intentional, but what Allen really seems to be doing here is concocting a much younger version of himself in order to appeal to kids while still putting himself into the picture. He’s trying to have his rugalach and eat it, too.
Christina Ricci plays Jerry’s high-strung actress girlfriend, Amanda, and in a way, she’s no more believable than Biggs, even though her performance is expert. (She has the ability to look winsome and stone-cold in the same moment.) As a writer-director, Allen doesn’t really care to explore the actual world of New York twentysomethings trying to make their way as entertainers, and his uninterest leaves his actors hamstrung. They come across as stand-ins not only for Allen but also for Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow and the rest of the old gang. The cultural points of reference for Jerry and Amanda, and their various friends and ex-lovers, are all Allen’s: Billie Holiday, Humphrey Bogart, Sinatra, Dostoevsky, etc. They frequent the Village Vanguard and buy vinyl albums of jazz oldies. It’s not that there aren’t any young New Yorkers who do these things—it’s just that they also do other things. In Allen’s hermetically sealed, time-warped world, no mention of current movies or books or music or politics is allowed (except, occasionally, as an object of derision).
This lack of curiosity about people’s lives is chilling. Allen seems to have given up on the idea of covering new ground, even as he ostensibly aims for the youth market. And yet he remains committed to making a movie a year whether or not he has anything original to say. Tired scenes like the ones with Jerry and his psychiatrist are pure shtick: He reveals nothing to us of his inner self, and the analyst is a clock-watcher. David—who, in effect, is Jerry’s true psychiatrist—scolds Jerry for choosing psychoanalysis over real life; but the truth is that there is precious little of either in Anything Else. The only point of interest is David himself, an unstable sage who is so paranoically attuned to any hint of Jewish persecution that he has practically become a survivalist. Awaiting the fascist onslaught, he keeps a gun in every room of his apartment. David is the sort of obsessive crank who would not appear out of place in a Saul Bellow novel, and if Allen had centered his movie on him instead of trying to make a faux youth picture, he might have really had something.
Instead, there is an air of resignation hanging over most of this movie, and it seems to pertain far more to Woody Allen’s current predicament than to anything his characters are going through. Jerry wants to write a “serious” novel, but, in the words of his woebegone agent, played by Danny DeVito, “the dollars are in the jokes.” David echoes the same thing. It’s as if we were being told that the kind of seriousness that made Allen’s Blue Period reputation, in films like Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, is no longer possible in commercial Hollywood. Jerry even looks to Hollywood as his career salvation—and, wonder of wonders for a Woody Allen film, we are led to believe that it just might be.
In all the current nostalgia for the maverick American movie artists of the seventies, it’s often forgotten that Woody Allen was very much a part of that crowd. His originality was in showing us a new kind of hero, ardent and brainy and not afraid to mix it up with Groucho Marx or Jean-Paul Sartre. (With Marx always coming out the winner.) He made it seem as if his characters’ romantic neuroses were our own. Allen’s best comedies were tremendously liberating; he put on the screen all the hang-ups and screw-ups and phobias that we admitted to but never got a chance to see in the movies before. But being a cultural icon is a time-limited occupation; after a while, the culture moves on, and if you don’t move with it, you end up with a movie like Anything Else.
In brief: My Life Without Me is a weepie for audiences under the (mistaken) impression that independent movies are always more emotionally honest than Hollywood movies. Sarah Polley, who has a lovely presence, plays a working-class mother of two who finds out from a doctor that she has only a few months to live. She immediately makes a list of all the things she wants to do. One of her wishes is to have an affair, even though her marriage is a happy one. As her suitor, Mark Ruffalo does his best to give the role some density and gruffness, but the writer-director, Isabel Coixet, saddles him with unplayable pronouncements like “The world seems less terrible because you exist.” . . . Michael Winterbottom’s In This World follows two cousins, played by the nonprofessionals Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah, as they make their way from an Afghan refugee camp just inside Pakistan to London. Their harrowing overland odyssey, which includes being smuggled for 40 hours in a sealed freight container bound for Italy, is excruciatingly vivid.