Woody Allen was the master of the "deep but funny" film. His early and best works (Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters) were profound meditations on the human condition, spiked of course with his trademark humor which made the pill of profundity easy to swallow.
Allen's later career however took a turn away from the Jacoboian moral struggle found in his earlier work. In retrospect, I can't help but speculate that he flirted with God, but allowed the Lord to go the way of Mia. Perhaps because of this, Allen seems eager to pass on the "deep but funny" baton which he carried so well, content with being merely funny (which he of course does quite well). I say this because in Anything Else Allen plays Dobel, a man who has allowed his neuroses to devolop into psychoses, yet with enough wit to martial the respect of a young writer (Jason Biggs) who seeks his advice. The message Dobel has for his mentee, and the message he seems to have for all of us is this:
"I, Woody Allen, am not to be followed if 'life-lessons' is what your after. In fact, I may be even a little crazy. Seek wisdom elsewhere."Now granted it's risky to plumb any given work of fiction or film and see one particular character as being the "voice of the writer," but it's not impossible, especially when certain signals are given, as they have been before. For example, in Husbands and Wives, Woody and Mia played a couple whose relationship was falling apart while Woody's character fell in love with a twenty-something - a scenario almost exactly mirroring reality in the Allen love-life at that time. So if Woody is showing his cards in Anything Else (as I suspect), at least it wouldn't be the first time.
But if this forfeit has occured, who then can inherit the mantle of the film both witty and wise?
There have been many attempts:
Zack Braff's Garden State and Russel/Baena's (cowritten) I Heart Huckabees are in their own ways on the "deep" side, yet both are hurt by plotlines built around the "blame your parents" school of maturation. Because of this we'll have to wait on these writers a bit before we get something on par with the early Allen.
Alexander Payne is quite the screenplay writer, as evidenced by the bittersweet quality of About Schmidt and Sideways. But because both were originally novels, we can't give Payne the "writer-director" credit he would need to match Woody. (Incidentally, wouldn't it have been nice for Sideways, a movie with the twin themes of need for companionship and love of wine, to have ended with the Eucharist? Oh well.)
Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia are definitely contenders. His films are gut-punch good, but hit a bit hard and suffer for it. Without the humor, they lack the buoyancy of Allen's work... but we're definitely getting warmer.
Sofia Coppola's understated Lost in Translation is very close to the mark, but with so few writer-directorships under her belt, as with Zack Braff, it's too early too tell.
Where then is the young filmaker concocting that perfect heavy/humorous blend with the same consistency as did the young Woody Allen? We need look no further than to Wes Anderson.
From Bottle Rocket to The Life Aquatic we've had four tenderly written and exquisitely executed pieces of work that summon both laughter and empathy with scenarios just beyond the scope of probability. Somehow this guy is getting it right.
That being said, rumor has it that Woody is back in his stride with Match Point. We'll see.