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What It Feels Like for a Boy

Sadness mixed with an audible sigh of relief in the reviews of Woody Allen’s latest film, “Anything Else.” While most critics agreed that this new romantic comedy — featuring “American Pie” star Jason Biggs in the traditional Woody Allen role — was nowhere near as disastrous as “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” or “Hollywood Ending,” the director’s last two films, they still longed for what they saw as the near-perfection of “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan.”

These reviews were, for the most part, wrongheaded. “Anything Else” is probably Allen’s most provocative, mature film since his 1992 effort, “Husbands and Wives.” Critics want to like Allen’s work, but on their own terms. They have gotten used to the screen persona he has been perfecting over four decades — the schlemiel-like Jewish jester who fumbles through life making fun of the emotional and sexual inadequacies of Jewish men — and they don’t really want to see it change; it is, for mainstream culture, a comforting image. But beneath the veneer of its velvety bittersweet romance, “Anything Else” is an ambitious, smart meditation on, among other topics, what it now means to be a Jewish man living in America.

It is no surprise that most critics have compared “Anything Else” to Allen’s much-lauded 1977 release, “Annie Hall.” Not only is the plot extraordinarily similar — it charts the emotional ups and downs of a complicated relationship between a neurotic Jewish writer and a flaky gentile woman — but Allen has even reprised some of the same techniques and scenes from his earlier film: the narrator addressing the audience, the use of split-screen, pervasive use of American popular music to convey emotional mise en scène, humorous banter on the analyst’s couch, comic brooding about death and the Holocaust, the protagonist’s unease about snorting cocaine at a social gathering. A complete list would be far longer.

But “Anything Else” is not, as some critics claim, a 20-something version of “Annie Hall” with Biggs and Christina Ricci in the roles played by Allen and Diane Keaton. It is, if anything, the anti-“Annie Hall.”

One of the enduring charms of “Annie Hall” is its endless good will and emotional sweetness: Annie and Alvy are good people and they love one another, but they just can’t work it out. In “Anything Else,” there is very little feel-good romance or good will. Biggs’s Jerry Falk is not funny; he is just unhappily neurotic and careens from relationship to relationship because, as he keeps confessing, he is “unable to wake up alone” and is incapable of relating to women as an adult. Ricci’s Amanda is a slightly older, and faintly more mature, version of her character Dede in the 1998 comedy “The Opposite of Sex”; she is so self-involved and emotionally defended that she simply goes through life protecting herself at the expense of other people. Indeed, some of “Anything Else” is as painful as the terse, emotionally caustic scenes in “Husbands and Wives.”

But while Jerry and Amanda’s romance takes up a great deal of the screen time in “Anything Else,” the heart of the film is encompassed in Jerry’s relationships with his two older, Jewish male mentors: Allen’s David Dobel, a failed comedy writer who lectures the younger man on Jewish pain and how to write jokes, and Danny DeVito’s Harvey, Jerry’s old-time-show-business agent and hack who can’t sell his client’s talent without making references to the rag trade. This story — a young Jewish writer having to make the consequential choice between two very different men and histories — is what drives “Anything Else” and gives it both heart and emotional urgency.

Many critics have noted that Allen has cast Biggs as his younger, equally inept alter ego. After all, Biggs, in the “American Pie” films, has been the schlemiel for the under-30 set: He is such a loser he grabs the crazy glue instead of hand lotion when in bed alone watching a pornographic movie.

Yet rather than reprise old roles, Biggs seems to be completing an arc that runs

from Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, whose own experience with his mother’s liver was a precursor to Biggs’s rendezvous with his mother’s apple pie, through many of Allen’s early protagonists. In “Anything Else,” Biggs’s Jerry Falk is not Alvy Singer redux; he is Allen’s version of a new sort of Jewish male figure who extricates himself from the character patterns that Allen himself has been so apt at portraying. The central emotional and thematic crisis in “Anything Else” is not whether Jerry and Amanda will stay together — except for some funny one-liners and a terrific performance by Ricci, writer Allen has little interest in her character — but whether Jerry will follow the lead of the defeated Harvey or the angry and proactive David.

DeVito’s masterful portrayal of Harvey is a vision of failed Jewish masculinity and success so nightmarish that he still lives with his mother and has only one client whom he refuses to let go of, draining the young man’s will and talent. Allen’s David, despite his quirks and neuroses, is a breath of fresh air. He has a sense of history and a sense of self that is new in the director’s films. In a scene toward the end of the film, David is humiliated into giving up a coveted parking spot by two street thugs. We have seen this ritual humiliation before in Allen’s films, but for the first time Allen’s character fights back, trashes the bully’s car and gets away with it. It is a breathtaking, liberating moment that defines the film — and one from which Biggs’s Jerry learns to take control of his own life and leave Amanda, Harvey, as well as the East Coast to find a new career.

In the end, “Anything Else” is about Jewish men and their (metaphoric) fathers. It is about casting off old forms of identity and behavior — the myth of beautiful gentile women and the trap of the old-world rag-trade mercantilism — to see new possibilities.

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