Critics Give Woody's New Flick a Thumb's Up

Woody Allen (search) is back.

Manhattan's best- known director blew it with his last two movies, "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" (search) and "Hollywood Ending," which disappointed critics and turned off audiences.

But if the reaction at the Venice Film Festival is to be believed, Woody should win back fans with "Anything Else," a new comedy starring Jason Biggs (search) and Christina Ricci (search) that premiered to raves yesterday.

"We're back to the good old Woody Allen," one critic said after the Venice press preview.

"It's funny and light - a lot like 'Annie Hall,' " said a British reporter who caught the screening.

"Fans who are nostalgic for the old Woody Allen will be happy with it."

Contrary to rumors, the 67-year-old Allen does not romance 22-year-old Ricci in the film, which opens in the U.S. Sept. 19. He relinquishes that honor to "American Pie" star Biggs, who plays a joke writer named Jerry.

Not that it's such an honor.

Ricci plays Jerry's flighty girlfriend Amanda, an Annie Hall (search) type who radiates erotic energy, but is too neurotic to actually have sex - at least with Jerry.

"She's the ultimate nightmare girlfriend," Ricci says. "The quintessential Woody Allen girl."

The film's distributor, DreamWorks, is marketing "Anything Else" as a Biggs/Ricci romantic comedy, rather than a Woody Allen film.

The trailer, now in theaters, avoids showing Allen's familiar face, even though he co-stars as Jerry's paranoid mentor, who has become obsessed with self-defense post-9/11.

"DreamWorks recognizes that Woody Allen appeals to a very narrow audience," says Martin Grove, columnist for the online Hollywood Reporter. "A romantic comedy appeals to a much broader market."

Allen is also hard-selling the film to his core audience of film buffs.

He usually skips premieres, but flew to Venice by private jet yesterday to attend the screening and meet with reporters.

"Woody's doing whatever he can," Grove says. "He needs a hit - and soon - if he's going to get back on the pedestal that Hollywood had put him on."