In his impressive body of work, Woody Allen has repeatedly depicted the battle of the sexes with humor and insight, usually playing the character buffeted by passion's ebb and flow himself. In "Anything Else," Jason Biggs plays the guy with the sexual hang-ups, who, with a confident stab at the quintessential Allen screw-up, proves there's more to life than "American Pie."

In his impressive body of work, Woody Allen has repeatedly depicted the battle of the sexes with humor and insight, usually playing the character buffeted by passion’s ebb and flow himself. In “Anything Else,” Jason Biggs plays the guy with the sexual hang-ups, who, with a confident stab at the quintessential Allen screw-up, proves there’s more to life than “American Pie.” The younger casting brings a freshness to the material and, with Allen as the weird mentor, there are plenty of laughs, even if the pacing’s slow and the running time over-extended. A mid-range Allen, pic is sharper than his latest offerings, but very far from top form. B.O. prospects seem only marginally better than the recent Allen norm.

What’s new in this Gotham-lensed comedy is a surprisingly dark element to the humor. Allen plays a sad-sack 60-year-old school teacher and would-be comic named David Dobel, who becomes increasingly obsessive as the film proceeds. With a history of mental illness, Dobel makes questionable jokes about the Holocaust, and has a fetish about being an armed survivor in what he sees as perilous times.

His close relationship with the 21-year-old Jerry Falk (Biggs) seems suffocating. Though Falk is, at first, pleased to have this wise, erudite and opinionated man as his friend, he eventually begins to find something a bit off-kilter about the relationship. Although Allen might have taken this shadowy side to his character to further extremes, he only touches on it, resulting in viewer frustration.

Right from the opening credits, designed in the now very familiar style and accompanied by Billie Holiday singing “Easy to Love,” the viewer is inescapably in Allen’s New York. Early scenes, set in Central Park, establish the two main characters, comedy writers who share a mournfully pessimistic attitude toward the human race.

Falk’s hopeless agent, Harvey (Danny DeVito) charges him 25%, but, although Harvey fails to get Falk much work, Falk is too kind-hearted to give him the heave-ho.

Falk’s also in analysis, but his shrink (William Hill) is frustratingly unhelpful. In fact, Falk has almost decided to quit writing comedy and is working on a gloomy-sounding novel.

The one bright spot in his life, he tells Dobel, is his girlfriend, Amanda (Christina Ricci), with whom he’s been living for a year. Before they met, he was living contentedly with Brooke (KaDee Strickland), but he fell for Amanda, a would-be actress, the moment they met.

Before long Falk and Amanda were living together, but passion all too soon gives way to rejection, as Amanda calls a halt to sex for six months. When he arranges a romantic dinner at a tony restaurant to celebrate their first anniversary, she turns up late and announces she’s eaten already.

Most of the film charts the ups and inevitable downs of this somewhat one-sided relationship. Matters aren’t helped by the arrival of Amanda’s mother, Paula (Stockard Channing) who moves herself and her piano into their tiny apartment after the break-up of her latest relationship. Paula, who fears getting old, plans a new career as a night-club singer, and one of the most touching moments in the film comes when, in the wee small hours, she insists Falk listen to her arrangement of the Peggy Lee song “There’ll Be Another Spring,” a sequence Channing performs most elegantly.

When Dobel finally meets Amanda he instantly becomes convinced she’s having an affair, and suggests that Falk follow her when she leaves her acting class. The fears prove to be well founded.

Much of “Anything Else” is quintessential Woody Allen; the ups and downs of love, all of it served up with a wry, ironic dash of humor. But the women characters are presented less sympathetically than they once were in Allen’s work, with Amanda, despite the sexiness and innate warmth Ricci brings to her character, ultimately coming across as a scheming, amoral two-timer, and Paula a somewhat sad woman clinging desperately onto what remains of her youth.

It’s in the character of Dobel, though, that something really unsettling seems to have entered into this otherwise familiar world. Though Dobel’s insistence that his friend acquire a weapon and survival equipment in case the worst should happen is at first presented humorously, Dobel is gradually revealed to be a violent and even murderous character. His caustic references to the Holocaust and to Jewish persecution eventually cast a bitter pall over the film, as does the harsh treatment meted out to poor, hopeless Harvey.

One of Allen’s rare excursions into Scope ratio filmmaking, “Anything Else” is very smoothly packaged, and is backed by the usual wall-to-wall soundtrack of jazz and blues classics from the great composers. Allen’s dialogue crackles with quotable one-liners and his actors, most of whom deliver their lines just like Allen himself, are entirely up to their tasks, with Biggs especially comfortable in the central role, even in the scenes in which he steps out of character to address the audience directly.

Anything Else

Production

A DreamWorks Pictures release and presentation, in association with Gravier Prods. of a Perdido production. Produced by Letty Aronson. Executive producer, Stephen Tenenbaum. Coproducer, Helen Robin. Co-executive producers, Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe. Directed, written by Woody Allen.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Darius Khondji; editor, Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; art director, Tom Warren; costume designer, Laura Jean Shannon; sound (Dolby Digital), Gary Alper; assistant director, Richard Patrick; casting, Juliet Taylor, Laura Rosenthal. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (opening film), Aug. 27, 2003. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

David Dobel - Woody Allen Jerry Falk - Jason Biggs Amanda - Christina Ricci Harvey - Danny DeVito Paula - Stockard Channing Brooke - KaDee Strickland Bob - Jimmy Fallon Connie - Erica Leerhsen Psychiatrist - William Hill Dr. Reed - David Conrad Ray Polito - Adrian Grenier Herself - Diana Krall

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