Film Review

Anything Else

Review by John Vassar
Louisiana State University - Shreveport


Vol. 8, No. 1 April 2004

Anything Else

[1] "In this world, you can only rely on yourself. In the end, that's the only person you can really trust." So says David Dobel to Jerry Falk in Woody Allen's newest comedy Anything Else

[2] Jason Biggs plays the role of Jerry Falk, a New York writer who composes jokes for comedians playing the New York club scene. His main problem, he confesses, is that he "can't leave anyone." He has been in a lengthy relationship with his girlfriend Amanda (Christina Ricci) but lately things are not well between them. Although Falk adores her, Amanda seems to merely tolerate him. After an inadvertent discovery in their apartment, Falk also suspects her of infidelity. When Amanda allows her mother (Stockard Channing) to move into their small apartment (along with a large piano) Amanda and Falk's relationship is pushed toward the breaking point. Outside of his apartment, Falk's life is equally complicated. He seems unable to muster the initiative necessary to escape the grasp of dysfunctional relationships with either his mute psychiatrist or with his laughing-stock agent (Danny DeVito). 

[3] Woody Allen portrays David Dobel, a public school teacher who sells jokes to comedians in his spare time. Dobel adopts a paternal relationship with young Falk and bombards him with numerous aphorisms during long afternoon walks in Central Park. After declaring that there is "wisdom in jokes," Dobel furthers Falk's education with other witticisms like "never trust a naked bus driver" and "as you go through life, only depend on yourself." Falk seemingly accepts these comedic koans without reflection, never pondering the fact that Dobel doesn't seem to have any more peace about life than Falk does. 

[4] In this film, Allen once again takes aim at contemporary romantic relationships. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that Allen should borrow liberally from his previous works. As in Annie Hall, for example, he plays a comedic writer who is concerned about overheard anti-Semitic remarks. The story also treads familiar ground with a barren, neurotic, romantic relationship--all against the backdrop of Manhattan. The fact that Allen even recycles a joke about onanism may seem a bit self-gratifying. But as Dobel also tells Falk, "Always strive for originality, but if you have to steal, steal from the best." 

[5] There are at least two explicit elements of religion which may be of interest to readers of this journal. The first consists of some short ruminations upon religion and humanity. Dobel is deeply concerned about perceived anti-Semitism. At one point he thinks that he overhears the statement that "Jews start all wars." Dobel also claims to be the victim of religious persecution (to which Falk responds "But you're an atheist!"). At the same time, Falk longs to write a novel about "Man's fate in the universe, death and suffering." The fact that Allen presents a comedy writer who longs to say important things on serious subjects might also remind the viewer of the auteur himself. 

[6] The second theme is the theme of release from constraints. Falk is in a suffocating series of relationships with his girlfriend, agent, and psychiatrist. Dobel appears to be truly concerned about young Falk's welfare and concludes that Falk must change his lifestyle completely. Dobel offers Falk a deal: they will each give up their lives in New York and move to Los Angeles where "any idiot can make a million dollars." Fleeing the constraints of (a very dangerous) New York for the gentle land of Los Angeles offers simplicity and self-reliance. 

[7] In the opening joke of the movie, Allen sets forward this theme of self-reliance, and even hints that this might even include independence from God. Dobel tells Falk that "A guy is in a boxing match, and he's getting his brains beat in. He is just getting pummeled in the ring. His mother is in the audience, watching her son getting beaten to a pulp. She happens to be sitting next to a priest and says to him 'Father, could you please pray for my son?' The priest replies 'Well, I would be happy to pray for him, but it would help if he could box.'" In Anything Else, self-reliance trumps any theistic claim and provides the only security for the individual. A continuing theme of several of Allen's films is that life is complicated and chaotic, and there is no deus ex machina sweeping in to restore order. Anything Else continues that theme. 

[8] Part of the theme of self-reliance in Anything Else flows from the reality that the city of New York can be a dangerous place. As in many Allen films, Central Park is a refuge - a sacred space. But danger lurks outside the park. Dobel purchases a gun for his young admirer and calmly admits that he himself keeps a "loaded gun in every room of my house." He also responds to two ruffians in a shockingly un-Allen way. Dobel emphasizes self-reliance in a way that seems informed by the September 11th attack on Allen's beloved metropolis. Anything Else might be viewed as an artistic response to these terrorist attacks. Even humor is affected as joke topics include such post-9/11 subjects as chemical-biological weapons (Dobel suggests that the Defense Department could make use of Amanda's hormones) and letter bombs.

[9] But even these topics are explored in a breezy, humorous way. Overall, this movie is a funny, light-hearted film. It is an average Woody Allen comedy, which places it far above the majority of its contemporaries.


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