Dir. Woody Allen. US, 2003. 108 min.

The prevalent notion that a Woody Allen comedy is just what the doctor ordered for the opening night of a major festival, may take another inauspicious turn after this year's Venice curtain raiser. Not only is the smart wit frayed at the edges and spread thin over a longer film than it can sustain, but ultimately this may well be Allen's saddest picture in years, a personal re-evaluation of his work seen in the light of the present, reaching a verdict that is less than flattering. With all due respect to one of the last remaining auteurs in American mainstream cinema, the small army of his faithful followers will have a hard time fully justifying his latest effort, which seems to confirm the inspirational slump that settled in after the success of Deconstructing Harry, causing many territories to re-think the rentability of a theatrical release on home turf.

Often criticised in the past for taking on romantic leads despite his age, Allen has chosen this time the back seat, as a commentator on the kind of romantic affair he would have played himself in the past, probably with someone like Diane Keaton opposite him. Instead, he has American Pie's Jason Biggs as Jerry Falk, a reprise of the classic Allen persona, showbiz aspirations and Jewish background included, and Christina Ricci as Amanda, his love interest, as mismatched a pair of lovers as Allen ever invented. Their doubts and insecurities provoke a series of supposedly funny, actually rather repetitive incidents, which unwrap over the typical Manhattan landscape that has become Allen's trademark. Jerry is a comedy writer who dreams of writing a great Dostoyevskian novel and Amanda is a young woman still searching for her own meaningful identity in life - and anyone who has ever seen an Allen movie would be very familiar with both of them. As for Allen himself, he plays David Dobel, an older man he meets in Central Park who assigns himself, for a short period of time, as the mentor of Jerry's romantic and professional entanglements, offering sharply critical comments on a relationship that looks very much like an old Allen comedy. If the retrospective mood is not clear enough, there is also an agent with one single client - just like Danny Rose used to be - but this time, Danny de Vito plays him, with none of the pathetic but so very human side the other character inspired at the time.

A much darker note is added by Dobel's obsession with the Holocaust and with his Jewish identity, his feelings being that the weak should not be the meek, and that if you can't put up your fists and fight the villains, better come back later with a tire iron or a gun and set things right. This suggests a change of heart in Allen's political stance, which he has usually kept to a low profile in the past and indicates a new direction he might be inclined to explore, now that he seems so disenchanted with his settled ways. In this respect, it is interesting that his new choice for director of photography is Iranian-born Darius Khondji, who distinguished himself in such threatening, brooding films as Seven, and displays some of his lighting magic in a brief sequence taking place inside a weapons shop in New Jersey.

Allen's thorniest problem here, however, is the cast. Biggs doesn't come close to the brittle diffidence, the soul-searching qualms and the manic nervousness of the old Allen persona, though he is entrusted with all the typical shticks that should have helped him achieve it, which include addressing the camera confidentially. Christina Ricci looks far too level-headed, calculated and secure for her part while Stockard Channing's cameo as her mother is barely exploited. And none of them seems comfortable with the overly abundant masses of one-liners, which are neither the freshest, the sharpest, or the most insightful Allen has ever written. Finally, if anyone needs convincing that as a performer, Allen was and remains inimitable, just watch him with Biggs and see how hard the latter has to work and still not meet the mark.

Prod Co: Perdido Productions
Prod: Letty Aronson
Exec Prod: Stephen Tenenbaum
Co-exec Prods: Jack Rollins, Charles Joffe
Sales: Dreamworks Pictures
Scr: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Ed: Alisa Lepselter
Prod Des: Santo Loquasto
Costumes: Laura Jean Shannon
Casting: Juliet Taylor, Laura Rosenthal
Cast: Woody Allen, Jason Biggs, Cristina Ricci, Danny de Vito, Stockard Channing, Jimmy Fallon