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Friday, Feb. 3, 2006
Woody, please take a break, for your fans and your sake
By KAORI SHOJI
One of the many occupational hazards of being a film reviewer, apart from wrecked eyesight, pimples before deadlines, friends phoning in their complaints ("That was the stupidest thing you ever wrote!") et al., is that you must review movies by a filmmaker you used to adore, and now must witness the decline of his work.
In this case, it's Mr. Auteur, Woody Allen. Now in his late 60s, Allen still churns out films at the rate of one a year and though once upon a time there was a tingling excitement before sitting down to watch an Allen movie, recently it's more like "Oh, right, here's yet another one."
His last formidable work was 1999's "Sweet and Lowdown," but from then his pictures tended to become exercises in regurgitation. Theoretically there's nothing wrong with that, but it's got to the point where we've witnessed a few too many stories of unemployed New Yorkers living in unusually large apartments, spewing forth about relationship problems using the kind of language you only hear in Allen movies ("Our relationship has moved to a new psychodynamic level").
"Why does Woody Allen have to work so much?" asked a recent Variety headline and you're inclined to agree. We all love him -- well, most of us -- and because of that we want him to take a break; a couple of years before the next film that might enable him to take more time and craft a classic.
The latest to appear on Japanese screens is his 2003 picture "Anything Else," titled "Boku no New York Life" over here. The title sounds like a recurring phrase during a brainstorming session: "Any other ideas? Anything else?" If this was the case, then the session concluded with Woody deciding to revive his 1977 classic (and, many would say, his best work) "Annie Hall," with characters and situations modified to match what he deems are modern times.
Annie has been renamed Amanda and instead of Diane Keaton delivering those delightful "lah-di-dahs," it's gorgeous Christina Ricci gazing out into the world with her wrathful eyes and driving her boyfriend crazy.
Amanda is the vintage Woody fantasy woman: an utterly desirable nightmare in baby-heels, whose moods swing faster than the "Pirates of the Caribbean" contraption over at Disneyland. She also sports a brittle, crude edge, broadcasting her promiscuity, insecurities and dietary habits nonstop so that after awhile (unlike Annie) whatever charm she has loses mileage fast and you're left feeling that her boyfriend Jerry (Jason Biggs) is better off without her.
Speaking of which, Jerry is a facsimile of Annie's boyfriend Alvie (who was played by Woody Allen, of course), only Jerry is 21 and Alvie had just turned 40 when he and Annie first started going out. Jerry's youth and inexperience means he lacks the kind of angst-ridden wit Alvie had going. So Allen channels himself into the story as Dobel, Jerry's friend who teaches grade school while writing comedy scenarios on the side.
Jerry, by the way, is a full-time comedy writer, though how he has managed to do this, support a girlfriend and afford rent for a beautiful Upper East Side apartment remains a compelling mystery, much more than Jerry's wondering over why Amanda refuses to sleep with him. Dobel informs him right away that she's having an affair ("I can see it in her eyes") and urges Jerry to do the same, since "no sex for a long time results in cancer." Jerry suspects (correctly) that Dobel is wacko, but frequently spends long afternoons walking in the park with him, listening to his cynical and embittered philosophizing.
As it turns out, Dobel's ranting is the best thing going for this movie, and certainly not the ineffectual (and totally artificial) twitterings between the central couple. Allen may not know how two 21-year-olds of the 21st century talk to each other, but he sure does know what an angry sixtysomething will say given the chance, and the stage is often left to Dobel, as he lets loose his rage at pretty much everything in the world. He describes Amanda as "a mercurial little jitterbug;" he calls Jerry's longtime agent (played with hyperbolic patheticness by Danny de Vito) "a rotting, slimeball loser;" and he babbles to Jerry of the time he hit his psychiatrist over the head with a fire extinguisher and was subsequently strait-jacketed.
No longer the 40-year-old Alvie, whose idea of venting anger was to air his grievances about his mother, Allen as Dobel is relentless as he urges Jerry to carry a Russian assault rifle for protection or jumps on a gang of thugs (they stole his parking space) with a crowbar. "This city is finished!" he screams at Jerry. "Cut off your ties, we're moving to L.A.!"
In the end, "Anything Else" resembles a dark, resentful end-of-an-affair hate letter to the city Allen had once loved so much he repeatedly swore never to leave, but now he's moved to London and makes his movies there.
One line stands out among the detritus as a sliver of truth taken from Allen's very soul; his character urges Jerry to keep working in the face of all personal disappointment and disaster because "work is the one thing that gives the illusion of continuity." Looks like that break is not coming anytime soon.