Jason Biggs portrays an aspiring comic writer in Woody Allen's Anything Else. (Courtesy photo)
'Anything Else' is another brilliant maniac movie

One of the miracles of studio movies is how drivers in Manhattan always find an empty parking space. About two-thirds of the way through Anything Else, David Dobel sits in his red Porsche convertible waiting for another car to pull out. Just as Dobel begins to back in, a lout slips past him and steals the space. Anyone waiting for Hollywood clichés - characters who ignore the camera, a gun that, introduced in the first act, goes off by the end, the transcendent power of romantic love - will have a tough time parking in Anything Else, the 34th film that Woody Allen has directed since Take the Money and Run in 1969. But Allen films have their own conventions, and, beginning with the jazz standard over opening credits, this one, another funny Valentine to New York and neurosis, is saturated with Allen's stylistic DNA.

"There's great wisdom in jokes," notes Allen's Dobel in an opening line that echoes through the rest of the proceedings. A high school teacher who, at 60, searches for work as a humorist, he is sitting on a bench in Central Park with Jerry Falk (Biggs), an aspiring 21-year-old comic writer. For Falk, as for many other Allen heroes, comedy is no laughing matter, nor is the subject of the novel he has started to write: "Man's fate in the empty universe." Earlier in his career, Allen himself would have played the part of Falk, a bumbling Jewish beau who is baffled by the mysteries of love and life. Instead, in the scene-stealing role of Dobel, he is one of two advisors whom Falk relies on to help make sense of the absurd. The other is a psychiatrist whose response to each of Falk's anguished monologues (including recollection of a dream in which the entire roster of the Cleveland Indians works the aisles at Toys 'R' Us) is inviolate silence.

Dir. Woody Allen; feat. Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Allen, Stockard Channing, Danny DeVito, Jimmy Fallon (R)
Throughout his oeuvre, Allen imposes his trademark stammer on almost all his characters. It is the fitting idiom of a culture of equivocation, in which perplexity is the only certainty. Hesitant to commit to any relationship, even with their mothers, his vacillating men understand Allen's own famous quip about bisexuality: "It immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night." But Anything Else - whose very title suggests evasiveness - is the story of a man who cannot uncommit: "Why do I have such a tough time leaving?" Falk asks his shrink, who does not answer. Falk finds it almost impossible to break with his desperate agent, Harvey (DeVito), an "inept little homunculus," in Dobel's words, who represents Falk as his only client. And, after one year of living with her, he cannot bring himself to split with beautiful, bulemic Amanda (Ricci), even after the moody, manipulative acting student rejects him sexually, even after she admits to affairs with other men, and even after she installs her outrageous mother (Channing) in his study in their cramped apartment.

Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs as a dysfunctional couple. (Courtesy photo)
Through flashbacks, continuing dramatic action, and Falk's own commentary delivered into the camera, Anything Else traces how Amanda and Jerry met, ignited, and made ashes of themselves. Told from the male perspective, it is another variation on the ancient theme of the fickle feminine, in which a cunning Siren beguiles a helpless shnook. Much more interesting is the figure of David Dobel, a deranged sage who quotes Albert Camus and stocks his harangues with sesquipedalian words, including "amphigory," "tergiversate," and "hebetudinous." Freed from the protocols of romantic lead, Allen creates in Dobel a manic blend of paranoid and prophet. Convinced that anti-Semites intent on completing the Nazi genocide lurk everywhere, Dobel, a Jewish atheist who spent six months in a straitjacket, has become a survivalist, armed with rations and weapons necessary to endure the coming Holocaust. As a present, he buys his young friend Falk a surplus Russian army rifle: "So they don't put you in a boxcar."

It is hard to find a box big enough to contain the untamed spirit of Dobel, a brilliant lunatic whose conversations ramble through quantum physics, art, and masturbation. Dobel feels surrounded by the forces of malice and mediocrity. "There is truly a paucity of veridical talent in the world," he proclaims. True, but Woody Allen is an indubitable anomaly. •

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