The writer, director, actor and "comic genius" (Time cover story, April 30, 1979) achieves a fascinating personal nadir with Anything Else, in which the once-famous (and now insane) comedy writer David Dobel, portrayed by none-other-than, tells his humorless young mentor, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), to "strive for originality, but steal from the best."
Of course, this line is shtick. It's also brilliant, once you realize that, like everything in the movie, it represents the artist reflecting on himself. Long ago, Allen made cinema that explored love and culture with an innovative mélange of form and content. Now he's an almost pathetic narcissist, stealing unapologetically from His Truly: Anything Else picks the bones of his own Annie Hall for scraps of character and humor, then regurgitates them into the mouths of Biggs -- whose Falk is a catalyst for the movie's plot, but who never really enters into it -- and Christina Ricci, who plays Amanda, a whiney, neurotic, capricious, ersatz Annie.
The misbegotten love between Falk and Amanda unfolds through Falk's direct address to the camera. They have a date, Amanda arrives late in a cab, she's in a bad mood, they argue about whether to go into the restaurant. (This all happened in Annie Hall, except it was a movie theater.) And so on, in scene after scene, more echoes, right down to the "No, Jew?" routine (Allen's character in each of his movies gets paranoid when someone says, "No, did you?")
Only Woody Allen could set a movie in post-Sept. 11 New York and create a nihilistic paranoid who insists people assemble survival kits -- because of Hitler and the Holocaust. (Prepare yourself for an Auschwitz joke but no mention of 9/11.) In fact, his leading men represent his own splintered, egomaniacal psyche: Falk is the young Allen, unable to say "no" to Amanda, his shrink, his agent (Danny DeVito), Amanda's mother (Stockard Channing) or Dobel; while Dobel is the milquetoast Falk all grown up, finally in control of everything -- except his myriad neuroses.
How can we listen to Allen's character say, "What you don't know will kill you," and not think of his life with Mia Farrow? How can we watch Ricci in white panties and a tight T-shirt and not see Allen photographing Soon-Yi? "I feel like committing suicide, but I've got so many problems, that wouldn't solve them all," Falk says, in what may be the movie's funniest line. Four or five other jokes work, although it's not hard to get a laugh when you write a sentence that contains the words "masturbation" and "Purim."
Allen scores Anything Else with classic jazz and Billie Holiday, and twice he films women at a piano, singing badly. His movie is hackneyed in its insight, often distasteful, and occasionally shrill with the cacophony of frenzied humor that passes for Allenesque sophistication. I could go on, but why bother? Now I need to cover my mirrors and mourn.