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Girl Trouble 

Throughout his long and incredibly prolific career, writer-director and frequent actor Woody Allen has returned again and again to stories about romantic yearning and disappointment. That theme was the focus of his landmark comedies Annie Hall and Manhattan back in the 1970s, and it continued in his series of great films in the 1980s from The Purple Rose of Cairo to Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors and in some of his better '90s films (Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown).

In one way or another, all these films address the issues of romantic insecurity, dissatisfaction, betrayal and missed opportunity. Those are the same themes that drive Allen's current Anything Else, which is easily his best film in the new century.

Anything Else is the story of Jerry Falk, a comedy writer and aspiring novelist. Falk is played by a surprisingly mature and effective Jason Biggs, who wisely sidesteps the trap Kenneth Branagh fell into in Celebrity, by eschewing line readings that echo too directly Allen's stock schlemiel. Falk is currently involved with a neurotic actress named Amanda, played by the unconventionally beautiful Christina Ricci, who is routinely at her best when, as here, she's portraying edgy, difficult characters.

Jerry and Amanda first get together by betraying other lovers to steal away for sexual trysts in every location their fevered imaginations can devise. Though Jerry doesn't grasp this for a while, their primary bond is their profound interest in what's good for Amanda. Once they move in together, having landed a man to provide for her, Amanda's ardor cools until it could freeze penguins. She's no longer interested in sex at all. And things get catastrophically worse when Amanda's mother, Paula (Stockard Channing), moves into their tiny apartment with them. Once Paula's in the house, it's not clear where the young couple could manage a private moment and space for sex even if Amanda could summon the desire. Ominously, we realize that Paula's boozy self-absorption is an emblem of the woman Amanda will age into.

Jerry takes counsel on the dismal turn in his love life from two sources. He begins seeing an almost comatose shrink who never answers a request for advice save by asking Jerry how he feels. Somewhat more productively, Jerry becomes friends with David Dobel (Woody Allen), an aging public schoolteacher who wants to give up the classroom to work as a TV sitcom writer. Dobel offers Jerry nuggets of genuine wisdom mixed with the slag of paranoid lunacy. Dobel is smart, well-read, thoughtful and outrageously funny. He's also nuts. A cauldron of anger bubbles beneath his meek exterior. And though he's an absolute atheist, he's also a devout Jew.

The twin crises that drive the plot in Anything Else arrive in tandem. Jerry's low-level career as a comedy writer is beginning to take off, and Dobel thinks Jerry should dump his screwball agent Harvey (Danny DeVito), an over-aged mama's boy whose every idea is expressed in metaphors about the clothing industry. Harvey has been loyal to Jerry, but he hasn't served him very well. Meanwhile, Jerry has become suspicious that Amanda isn't having sex with him but is having plenty of sex with somebody else, maybe more than somebody else. Dobel proposes that Jerry solve both problems at once by moving from New York to L.A. and leaving both Harvey and Amanda behind. Easy for Dobel to propose, but not so easy for a hung-up guy like Jerry to execute.

Critics who aren't as fond of Allen's humor as I am might criticize him for simply rehashing earlier work. Certainly Jerry and Amanda's relationship is a revisiting of the romantic dynamic explored in Annie Hall. And granted we've seen versions of the abortive lovemaking scene that Amanda can't complete because she's a bundle of narcissistic nerves. Even the Dobel character has a prototype in the philosopher from Crimes and Misdemeanors. But a fairer assessment of Anything Else would judge it not a rehashing but a reworking and updating. The issues are the same, but the characters are younger, fully contemporary and in those and other ways different.

One aspect of this film is utterly different, and I suspect it might become Allen's new strategy for using himself. Unlike last year when Allen paired himself romantically with Tea Leoni in Hollywood Ending and the year before that with Helen Hunt in Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the filmmaker leaves the romance this year to his younger co-stars. Freed of the responsibility to carry the plot, Allen leaves his Dobel character the liberty to generate the comedy. This isn't to say that Allen failed to write funny lines for other actors -- he's always been generous about that -- but it's true that Woody hasn't been this cumulatively funny in a while. In the final analysis Anything Else is like a fine meal in a favored restaurant. You've had the same thing before, but that doesn't mean this time it isn't delicious.

click to enlarge Jerry (Jason Biggs) realizes he's got a handful with - new girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci) in Woody - Allen's latest romantic comedy, Anything Else.
  • Jerry (Jason Biggs) realizes he's got a handful with new girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci) in Woody Allen's latest romantic comedy, Anything Else.
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