Jesse Eisenberg stars at the latest neurotic Woody Allen surrogate in "To Rome With Love." Let's see how he rates
Jason Biggs in “Anything Else”
After the commercial failures (and disastrous reviews) of “Hollywood Ending” and “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” Allen exiled himself to a supporting role and hired “American Pie” star Biggs (whom he incorrectly believed to be Jewish) to play an aspiring comedy writer who was clearly a younger version of himself. I halfway want to stick up for “Anything Else,” which is an exceedingly lightweight Allen comedy — built around the tepid romantic triangle of Biggs, Christina Ricci and KaDee Strickland — but doesn’t quite deserve its dismal reputation. I think it has a lot to do with the perceived desperation behind the whole enterprise: In search of commercial relevance, Allen cast a bunch of drastically younger actors, and DreamWorks tried to market the film on Ricci and Biggs’ alleged youth appeal, in ads that barely mentioned Allen’s name. Perhaps this was an important failure, which drove Allen toward the understanding that his primary audience would always be adults (and increasingly European adults at that).
Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity”
Although “Celebrity” is clearly a trial run for the post-Woody period, and only the second of his films (after “Bullets Over Broadway”) to cast a much younger guy in the leading role, it even more clearly marks the end of an era. It’s the last of his black-and-white New York City films, the last of his four collaborations with Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s great cinematographer, and the last of the 21 Allen films (!) edited by Susan E. Morse. (Of all the shifts in style, method, mood and infrastructure to be found in Allen’s 21st-century movies, that last one may be the most telling.) Branagh plays a burned-out novelist turned celebrity journalist, delivering an uncanny impersonation of Allen’s stammering speech and awkward manner that’s too hammy by half, which is nothing new for the scenery-chewing Irish thespian. The general tone of “Celebrity” is one of personal and cultural exhaustion, but it might be worth a re-watch just for the ambiance and the all-star cast: Judy Davis, Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Joe Mantegna and Charlize Theron, not to mention bit parts for Donald Trump, Isaac Mizrahi and so on.
Josh Brolin in “You WIll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”
In the rear-view mirror, Brolin’s character in this dour, London-set relationship roundelay — an unhappily married American novelist who seems to spend most of his time gawping out the window at a hot neighbor (Freida Pinto) — looks like a dry run for the vastly more appealing literary-minded hero of “Midnight in Paris.” This is among the sourest and most death-obsessed of Allen’s later films (note the title, ha ha) and Brolin’s WASPy, almost featureless Roy Channing is easily its least interesting character. (Roy Channing! That’s like a name the writing team for “Mad Men” would have discarded as too white-bread.) Don’t get me wrong, I think Brolin is an outstanding screen actor when used correctly, as in “W.” or “Milk” or “No Country for Old Men,” but he requires manlier fare than Allen can provide.
Larry David in “Whatever Works”
Apparently resurrected from a script Allen wrote in the early 1970s (originally meant for the late Zero Mostel), “Whatever Works” is an outlier in many ways among his later films. It’s the only one to feature an actor close to his own age, playing a self-evidently Jewish intellectual protagonist, and the only one to return to Allen’s familiar upper-middle-class Manhattan milieu of the ’70s and ’80s. So the results have a certain appeal for Allen’s longtime fans, and if you approach “Whatever Works” as a long-shelved, second-rate Neil Simon comedy rather than an Allen film, it almost works. Unfortunately, Larry David, playing a sourpuss retired physicist who comes home to find Mississippi runaway Evan Rachel Wood on his doorstep, is so grating and unconvincing that he completely undermines whatever entertainment potential the material holds. You can’t entirely blame David, who reportedly warned Allen that his work in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was largely improvised and he wasn’t good with scripted dialogue.
Jesse Eisenberg in “To Rome With Love”
As Jack, an American architecture student in Rome torn between his lovely, stable, present-tense girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and her newly arrived femme fatale best friend (Ellen Page), Eisenberg resembles the young Woody Allen more closely than anyone else he’s ever cast. OK — a much better-looking version of the young Woody, to be fair. Jack is the hero of just one-third of this rambling, picturesque, somewhat disconnected comedy, but he carries most of its drama and pathos on his narrow shoulders. It’s only stretching a point slightly to claim that Alec Baldwin also plays a Woody protagonist in “To Rome With Love,” since Baldwin’s character, a middle-aged American architect named John, may be Jack’s future self, sent back in time to offer acerbic romantic advice (which lovesick Jack of course ignores).
Will Ferrell in “Melinda and Melinda”
Who could forget the long-awaited collaboration between Allen and Ferrell, two of the funniest men in film history? Well, almost everybody, apparently. Although it’s more like an overly arch experiment than a total failure, “Melinda and Melinda” probably has a lower profile than any of the films Allen has made since removing himself from the leading roles. The framing device — a group of playwrights, telling the same story as comedy and as tragedy — is witty and fun, but Radha Mitchell (cast in place of the uninsurable Winona Ryder) is something of a nonentity as the purported lead character in both tales. There’s a lot of good ensemble work, but Ferrell’s limited role, as a sad-sack unemployed actor mooning over Mitchell, might be the best thing in the movie.
Scarlett Johansson in “Scoop”
With its British setting and its mixture of effervescent light comedy, murder mystery and supernatural flourishes, “Scoop” set the table for Allen’s late-career globetrotting renaissance. It’s a mild, lightweight charmer that feels cobbled together from bits of Allen’s old comedy routines and the 1940s movies he loves. But Hugh Jackman makes for a suave love interest (and eventual villain), and Johansson plays opposite both Jackman and Allen himself — as a magician whose interest in her, thankfully, is strictly paternal — with an easy verve she doesn’t always display in sexier roles.
Ewan McGregor in “Cassandra’s Dream”
Quite likely the last straight-up drama of Allen’s career, “Cassandra’s Dream” is something of a puzzler, an ambitious follow-up to “Match Point” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” that doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. (I’m aware that it has some prominent critical defenders, enough of them that I’m convinced I should give it another shot someday.) This is not just a mordant crime film but a British mordant crime film, with McGregor and Colin Farrell as a pair of working-class brothers ground up in the evil schemes of their diabolical uncle (Tom Wilkinson). I simply think that too many levels of translation are at work, and McGregor never seems completely at ease as the naive, lovesick hero entranced by Hayley Atwell’s scheming actress.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Match Point”
Although it was rapidly rewritten and recast for an English setting (after Allen’s New York financing fell apart), “Match Point” became Allen’s most successful film of the 2000s, and arguably one of the five or six best of his entire career. Given this film’s thematic connections to Allen’s classic “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” one could argue that Rhys Meyers, the handsome Irish actor who plays the adulterous tennis-pro protagonist, is a Martin Landau stand-in rather than a standard Woody surrogate. Still, Rhys Meyers’ Chris is a reticent, introspective intellectual type, obsessed with Dostoyevsky and opera, who surrenders to complete amoral criminality. Intriguingly, this role very nearly represented the peak of Rhys Meyers’ film career; he appeared in “Mission: Impossible III” the following year but has been plagued by substance-abuse issues and erratic behavior ever since. (More recently, he returned to prominence as Henry VIII in TV’s “The Tudors.”)
Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris”
Easy as it is to make fun of Wilson’s performance as Gil, the time-traveling would-be novelist at the heart of Allen’s most successful film — widen your eyes and say, with a slight Texas twang: “Gertrude Stein? Pablo Picasso?” — it’s his easygoing presence that makes the whole silly concoction stick together. Gil may be the least Woody-like of all the Woody surrogates in Allen’s oeuvre, largely because Wilson seems constitutionally incapable of playing a neurotic intellectual, and that’s a significant source of the movie’s appeal. Allen in fact told Cannes reporters that he cast Wilson because the latter seemed like a “California beach boy,” and did not remind him of himself. In actual fact, Owen Wilson is from Dallas, 1,200 miles or so from California — but then, all points west of Hoboken seem about the same to Woody.