Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.20: Woody Allen's Anything Else

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2003’s Anything Else.
Grade: 0 (F)
I’m going to relate a personal story. I chose Woody Allen as my director for February knowing I’d be getting into some dire stuff as I explored the back half of his career. I went to the library and requested any and every lousy Woody Allen movie that wasn’t freely available to me. By the time the month started winding down, there was one select title that looked like it wasn’t going to show up: 2003’s Anything Else, widely regarded as the worst film Allen ever made. I felt a bit disappointed at first that I wouldn’t get to explore the absolute low of his career, but at the same time relieved that I wouldn’t have to watch what’s essentially a misogynistic remake of Annie Hall starring Jason Biggs in the Alvy Singer role. Then, last night, I received an e-mail saying that Anything Else had arrived. My reaction, spoken aloud: “Oh no.”
Jerry Falk (Biggs) is a 21-year-old divorced comedian (uh…huh) living in New York. He has a lousy agent (Danny DeVito), a lousy psychiatrist (David Conrad), and no confidence. He meets and befriends older comedian David Dobel (Allen) who serves as his mentor in his professional and personal life. Falk has a great girlfriend, but he meets and falls for Amanda (Christina Ricci) immediately, begins an affair, and tells his girlfriend about it so she’ll dump him, for he’s too weak willed to end relationships. Falk and Amanda fall in love…but love is never as simple as all that.
There’s really no avoiding it: this is Annie Hall Redux, but with two Woody Allens instead of one. Biggs talks to the camera, like Allen did in Annie Hall, has ups and downs with the “love of his life”, has a career as a comedian, and even does cocaine in one scene with Ricci. It’d be annoying enough if Allen was just cannibalizing his own past, but Anything Else is far more insidious than just an uninspired Annie Hall retread (with infinitely less impressive directing and no good one liners).
Let’s start with Biggs, a questionable performer under any circumstances, asked here to deliver hyper-literate Woody Allen dialogue, often directly to the camera. Biggs isn’t quite as irritating an Allen-surrogate as Kenneth Branagh of Celebrity, but he looks like a kid dressed up in ill-fitting clothing, trying to be taken seriously, and he’s far too self-conscious. It’s hard enough believing that a 21-year-old could have so much world experience and have already been married and divorced and still have a good apartment and a budding career. It’s even harder to believe with Jason Biggs in the role.
Allen doesn’t help matters himself. David Dobel is a more eccentric version of Woody Allen, a bitter old man with suspicion and contempt for everything who nonetheless apparently sees something in Biggs’ character. He’s a gun nut who owns several firearms he keeps loaded throughout his home, he suspects everyone around him of Anti-Semitism (tasteless references to the Holocaust abound in this film), he hates women (he prefers masturbation), and he’s generally unpleasant to be around. The joke is that he’s crazy (WOODY ALLEN ACTING CRAZY EVERYONE!), but it’s just Allen playing up his persona to extreme, uncomfortable levels to the point where it’s impossible to bear him anymore. When he smashes up someone’s car with a tire-iron and later talks about shooting a cop, we’re far beyond the realm of likability here. Allen says the character is based on a mentor he had as young comedian. If the guy was anything like the hateful, pretentious concoction on-screen, then he wasn’t worth paying tribute to. He spouts out big, ostentatious words to show his superiority to everyone else and has a motto when it comes to lousy parts of life: “It’s like anything else”, often following it up with “think about it”. Profound.
Danny DeVito’s thankless role as a terrible agent for Biggs is pretty awful as well (think Broadway Danny Rose, but without any affection for anyone), and Allen’s facile observations about psychiatry are every bad psychiatrist joke ever (hard to think that this guy was once a master at exploring psychoanalysis). No matter how tasteless or awful any of the characters are in the film, however, it’s absolutely nothing compared to its portrayal of women. Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry, and Celebrity were all terrible films with hateful portrayals of women as shrews, sexpots, and pinheads, but they can’t compare to the towering behemoth of misogyny that is Anything Else’s Amanda, a thankless role to end all thankless roles (Christ, even the poster's portrayal of their relationship is misogynistic, take a look at it and its tagline). It’s depressing to see Ricci, the talented actress from great movies like The Ice Storm and Buffalo 66, relegated to this part, a nervy, shrewish, fussy sexpot that exemplifies everything late-period Allen thinks about women. It isn’t the only terrible female role in the film (Stockhard Channing plays Amanda’s shrewish mother), but it’s by far the worst in both the film and in Allen’s filmography.
Biggs’ Falk claims that “women are paradise”, but he’s really a passive-aggressive misogynist and nerdy ditherer (compared to Allen’s more openly contemptuous character). The tone is set early when Amanda arrives late at a date. It’s a scene that’s superficially like the one at the beginning of Annie Hall, where Diane Keaton arrives late to a date and the two main characters start picking at each other, but here everything is Ricci’s fault. She forgot her wallet, so Biggs has to pay for the cab. She pops diet pills. It’s their anniversary dinner, but she already ate (spaghetti, cheesecake, almost everything else in the house). And he reserved the best booth in the restaurant for them. How completely thoughtless of her. At least he can go home and make a tuna sandwich; it was left over because, he jokes “she doesn’t know how to use the new can-opener”. She pushes him around, demanding that his office be turned into a room for her mother to stay with them. For their anniversary, he gets her earrings, she gets him plays by Sartre. It’s materialism vs. intellect here, and this is just in the first few minutes.
It doesn’t get any better: the film flashes back to their meet-cute a completely unbelievable sequence where they have no chemistry whatsoever, yet they’re crazy about each other (or at least he’s crazy about her…). When it cuts back, it shows that she’s an insecure woman who flinches whenever he tries to have sex with her (they haven’t had sex in six months). He complains: it’s basically all her problem, not his. Later, when he plans a romantic night with her, she goes into hysterics when he tries to touch her, flipping out and screeching that she can’t breathe. Of course, it’s all an act, or else she’s nuts. She goes to the doctor, where a joke is made the attractive doctor gets to touch her breasts. By now, you either hate the film or dear god, what’s wrong with you?
It turns out that she’s needy and unfaithful- she cheats with her professor, her actor friend, and others…but not Biggs. Allen refers to her as a “loving disabled sex kitten”. As Biggs leaves for L.A. to start a new life, he sees her one more time…with the attractive doctor from earlier. He complains about the difficulty of life, and the cab driver says, “It’s like anything else.” At this point, my notes for the film ended with "fuck this shit".
I wanted to punch this movie in the face. It doesn’t even have the ambition or occasional cleverness (however awful) of Deconstructing Harry or Celebrity. The film is mean-spirited, wrong-headed, tone-deaf, and ugly in its vile misanthropy and misogyny. If there’s any solace, it’s that there’s no shot in hell that Allen could ever make a film this bad again. One last note: Quentin Tarantino went against the grain and listed Anything Else as one of his favorite films since he started making films. Quentin, you’re one of the best filmmakers alive, and your passion for film is inspiring, but I’m never taking a movie recommendation from you.

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