Tomorrow, Woody Allen tests his faithful core audience in an unexpected way. Forget Mel Gibson — the new anti-Semitism is coming from Woody.
In "Anything Else," his absolutely dreadful new comedy (and I use that term loosely), Allen plays an enigmatic, violent, self-loathing Jew. At one point, his character, called David Dobel, refers to Danny DeVito's character, a talent agent, as "your Jew manager. Hey, I'm a member of the Tribe," he tells Jason Biggs' character, Jerry, "but you know what I mean."
It's maybe the strangest and most unforgiving moment in any Woody Allen movie. Is it Dobel speaking or Allen? And, either way, is it necessary?
It doesn’t help that DeVito’s character, depicted as the kind of agent who uses garment-center metaphors to describe everything artistic, is named Harvey Wexler. With his roly-poly mien and garrulous personality, DeVito's caricature of a shrill, unlikable, easily mocked Broadway Danny Rose type is not exactly hard to figure out. I just can't believe DeVito didn't know what he was doing at the time.
What is hard to figure out is what's happened to Allen over the last five years. "Celebrity," "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and "Hollywood Ending" are, one after another, dispiriting and messy entries into the Allen catalog, badly realized non-comedies that threaten his remarkable legacy. Now we can add "Anything Else" to this misbegotten list of mean-spirited headaches that lack any of the sweetness that used to mark an Allen film.
Even when he was being socially critical or satirical, Allen always conveyed a certain felicity. But this group of movies makes for a bitter meal, one that few will want to experience again.
"Anything Else" has flickers of the old Woody, of course. There are funny lines, including one in which Biggs tells his therapist he’s had a dream about the Cleveland Indians getting jobs at Toys 'R' Us. (This almost seems like a bit out of "Bananas" or "Love and Death," and it’s hysterical.)
But the problem is that Biggs is a kid, and so is his romantic interest, played by Christina Ricci. Nevertheless, they spew lines Allen and Diane Keaton used to volley at each other, and it's completely weird and unbelievable.
It's as if that scene at the end of "Annie Hall" — the one in which young actors play Annie and Alvy in Alvy's play reading — have come alive and become a whole movie. They're like kids trying on their parents' clothes.
Biggs, who is 25 in real life, and Ricci, 23, are given characters that seem 10 years older. Instead of acting and sounding even like smart twenty-somethings, Allen saddles them with conversations about jazz, death and the meaning of life.
They go to a record store (shades of "Hannah and Her Sisters"), Biggs meets Allen in Central Park and later, with a Manhattan bridge in the background ("Annie Hall," "Manhattan"), Allen skids around town in a little sports car ("Manhattan") and tries to convince Biggs to come to California (reverse "Annie Hall"). You feel like you've seen almost every scene before, except with adults playing the parts.
There's an interesting movie lurking in "Anything Else," but it would be based on Allen's character if fully realized. It would also not be a comedy.
Dobel is an anti-Semite who fears anti-Semitism. He is passive-aggressively violent and has perhaps a sinister backstory. He says he has guns within reach in every room in his house. Toward the end of the movie he does something extremely violent off-camera — provoked, he says, because his victim told him "the Holocaust was really just a theme park."
In my screening, you could hear a pin drop when Allen said that line. No one laughed, trust me.
Allen said in a panel discussion recently, I think in Venice, that new filmmakers are not influenced by him, but by Martin Scorsese. I asked him about that on Tuesday night at a lavish cocktail reception DreamWorks gave for him before a screening.
"It's true," he said. "I did say that. I don't think that anyone tries to imitate me. I was talking with Scorsese and I told him that. Young directors aren't interested in me."
Either Allen is voicing a strange humility, or he really doesn't get it. With that statement he seems not to understand that "When Harry Met Sally" was really a Woody Allen movie, that "Seinfeld" and "Friends" are derived from his work, that "Rhoda" and "The Nanny" wouldn't have been possible without him and neither would have Bette Midler.
Allen's indelible mark is on so much of the culture that it's kind of frightening. But more frightening is that he doesn't know it. "Zelig" and "Purple Rose of Cairo" are often imitated, and there are many versions of "Hannah and Her Sisters" made by subsequent directors.
Maybe he should check out some more modern films like "This Is Spinal Tap," or "The Myth of Fingerprints." Woody's fingerprints are everywhere.
Allen's movies took a turn to the dark side with "Deconstructing Harry," the first of his films that contained four-letter words and miserable people who were simply miserable. "Small Time Crooks" is the lone exception on film, and Allen's pair of one-act plays he produced Off Broadway last spring was a welcome return to form.
But if the pattern continues, soon he'll be right about his influence. And that would be a shame.
Kevin Bacon (with brother Michael), Patti LaBelle (who performed), Donald Trump, Don King, basketball legend Julius Erving and Denise Rich all turned up for Wyclef Jean's big album-release party on Tuesday night at the Hudson Theatre in Manhattan, hosted, of course, by the legendary Clive Davis, who introduced songs from the new album.
"The Preacher's Son," Wyclef's first album on J Records, will be released in a couple of weeks by Davis, who rescued Wyclef from Sony/Columbia. If the show Wyclef performed live was any indication, the founder of the Fugees may at last get his recognition as this generation's combination of Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.
Readers of this column know that I often lavish praise on Wyclef as a musician and a humanist. His mini-show at the Hudson only supports my previous thoughts. A musical savant and linguistic gymnast, Wyclef is a premiere rapper who manages to convey some serious thoughts with important language.
He never, as far as I can tell, resorts to vulgar language to convey a point. His music is all original and not sampled. He plays many instruments and is fluent in several languages. My only fear is that he’s too good for the audience he wants to entertain.
Meanwhile, outside the Hudson Theatre, there was actually a fight. Male model Tyson Beckford — maybe thinking he was another Tyson — got into some kind of altercation with a group of bikers. The police came, the fight dispersed and Beckford presumably didn't miss Wyclef's show.
Wasn't that Jamie Lee Curtis in the Beverly Hills branch of Saks Fifth Avenue? She tried on pairs of shoes with high stiletto heels by "in" designer Jimmy Choo, then chucked them. "I'm an adult," she said to the saleswoman. "I can't wear these!" She wound up buying more sensible flats ...
Kim Cattrall, already in Los Angeles for the Emmy Awards, ate dinner with Kelsey Grammer, aka Frasier Crane. They arrived and left separately, so we can guess the conversation may have been about a future project. Could Samantha of "Sex and the City" be paying a visit to Dr. Crane this season? ...
At the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, veteran actor Morgan Freeman had drinks with young upstart Josh Hartnett recently...
And TV Guide may have the most rocking post-Emmy party this Sunday night. They hired one of my favorite groups, Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters, as entertainment.