Woody Allen churns out one movie a year -- and "churned out" is an apt description of how his new romantic comedy, Anything Else, feels. Disappointingly mediocre would be another. It's not that the film doesn't have its humorous moments or memorable lines. It has many, but the jokes and quips would be a lot funnier if they hadn't been heard countless times before in the writer-director's earlier, better works.
The stammering, neurotic Allen persona has become a staple in the filmmaker's comedies, even when he casts somebody else in the role, as he did in Celebrity, when Kenneth Branagh assumed the mantle. Here he is played by Jason Biggs (the American Pie series), who stars as Jerry Falk, a struggling writer with a few credits under his belt, who falls head over heels in love with a self-centered, manipulative, aspiring actress named Amanda (Christina Ricci). What he sees in her is a mystery. Once she succeeds in wooing him away from his fiancée, she loses all interest; he spends the rest of the movie catering to her every whim and trying to rekindle her sexual interest in him.
Two other relationships occupy Jerry: One is with his manager, Harvey (Danny DeVito), and the second is with his newest best friend, a former comedy writer named David Dobel (Allen). Dobel, who wants Jerry to become his writing partner and go to Hollywood with him, keeps urging Jerry to dump both Amanda and Harvey. Although his reasons for doing so are self-serving, he happens to be right, on both counts. The mealy-mouthed, too-nice Jerry can't bear to hurt Harvey's feelings, and he refuses to see that Amanda couldn't care less about him.
Given the non-storyline, the film doesn't have many places to go -- although even the absence of a plot doesn't normally affect a film, if it has likable or engaging characters. Anything Else, however, has anything but. Biggs, at least, appears to be trying. He has Allen's distinctive cadence and speech patterns down, but he seems unnerved by the responsibility (perhaps self-imposed) of having to capture the Wood-man's personality. He ends up playing him more as a sad-sack loser than as a self-consumed neurotic.
Not that Allen always plays himself well, either. As David Dobel, he plays a variation of himself, and surprisingly, he ends up as pretty much the best thing in the movie. DeVito is also good, playing a role he could play in his sleep -- that of the jovial, kind-of-smarmy manager. DeVito never seems to just phone in a performance. Even when the part's not a stretch for him, he gives it his all.
Not so Ricci, who proves a major disappointment, giving a mannered, totally unconvincing performance as the pouty, narcissistic Amanda. Playing the film's most unlikable character is never easy. Jennifer Tilly was so shrill in Bullets Over Broadway that the viewer wanted to strangle her, but at least she was supposed to be that way. Ricci never fully develops a character, and what she does manage to throw together feels lazy and one-dimensional.
As in most Allen films, each character is absorbed with his or her own crises and has little time for, or interest in, anybody else's problems. For some reason, this can be funny when Judy Davis or Diane Keaton is the self-obsessed neurotic, since they tend to have mitigating fun and/or funny qualities. No one here does, however.
Allen throws in his usual shtick involving a classical Freudian analyst (boring) as well as intimations of a worldwide anti-Semitic conspiracy (old hat). If neither had ever been seen before -- or at least something different had been attempted with them -- they might have worked. But it's the same old stuff you've seen a dozen times already.
Like most directors, Allen has his ups and his downs. His best work (Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo) and even just his good films (Mighty Aphrodite, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) all have something fresh and/or clever about them. Anything Else is Allen at his most mediocre, and that's just not good enough.