29 August 2004 | feelinglistless
It's a film of small ambitions.
Having had to visit Woody Allen's previous two films on Region One dvd (Hollywood Ending and Curse of the Jade Scorpion) it's actually quite a revelation to see the white on black characters appear on a cinema screen -- I'd forgotten how that looked and the anticipation of what the first moments will be as the usual jazz track plays out, it feels comfortable and familiar. And its this familiarity which fuels the film -- for the first time in a while we are back in the Manhattan of the here and now watching a character based story. Although his films have been no less enjoyable lately they have hung on a concept or mcguffin which drives the plot when for me he's always been more comfortable exploring characters within a simpler structure. Which is why Anything Else works so well.
Yet again I find myself rush headlong against general critical opinion. Does it do anything absolutely new? No. Does it at times feel like Woody Allen by numbers? Yes. But it doesn't matter. I would much rather go to the cinema and see something with a script which is half literate with a good 10-15 belly laughs and god forbid actually makes me thing than the usual crud which passes itself off as a smart twentysomething comedy. The magic this time is that despite what poster might being telling you these aren't perfect characters. For once the director lets their mess of neurosis come into conflict and see what happens.
Jason Biggs like most people in their early twenties doesn't know what they want but can't break from the life they've been dropped into (its actually a much stronger performance than people are giving him credit for -- compare his work here to Loser and you can see he's learnt a few things in the intervening years. Woody himself might be the mentor of the piece but he's also a psychoanalytical mess (and the director seems to enjoy not having to carry the film as well as write and direct it -- he's always underestimated his talents but here he's very touching). Christina Ricci is adorable but as a girlfriend would a pain to get along with but for perfectly good reasons (secretly I assumed that the work she does here is similar to what we're missing in the still painfully unreleased Prozac Nation) including her mother played by Stockard Channing (I can't believe she's never been in a Woody Allen film before). The main ensemble is set off my Danny DeVito the gatekeeper to Biggs freedom (oddly also not been through the Woodster mill either before).
It's a film of small ambitions. It plays out against a backdrop of very few sets and locations. A massive amount of the story takes place in Bigg's apartment and on the benches of Central Park. This has the effect of allowing the audience focus on the dialogue. Instead of following the usual route of giving kids hip references which both immediately date a film and clang about to anyone the same age as the characters, Allen instead drops mentions for the giants of literature, philosophy and music. If this is the environment these characters have grown up in and the culture they've been exposed to they're hardly going to start talking about Britney Spears (although do look out for a cameo by a contemporary music artist). Which is I suppose what makes it so involving. We're watching someone else's world and getting lost there. No one complains about Middle Earth, so why all the back biting about this version of Manhattan?