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Gretchen Mol, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kenneth Branagh
in Woody Allen's Celebrity

(©1998 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.)

It was funny going to the United States premiere of Woody Allen's latest movie, Celebrity. A film that purports to damn America's star-obsessed culture was welcomed by a paparazzi battalion, Leo-crazed girls, and fawning urban aesthetes. The stars, including Kenneth Branagh, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen, and Leonardo DiCaprio, spoke affably with Access Hollywood "reporters" and smiled for the photographers. The event was the opening night of the annual New York Film Festival held at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Allen, who did not attend, was probably having a good laugh anyway, knowing full well that his actors were committing the very sins his film warns against.

Celebrity is Woody Allenís twenty-ninth feature film, his sixth film to be shot in black and white, and his seventh film not to star himself as the protagonist. It also represents a continuation of a style of filmmaking he began with his 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters. This style consists of gathering all his actors in a single room, having them all talk at once, and making his poor cinematographer try to makes sense of the multi-threaded conversations. Sometimes it works, as in Husbands and Wives, when the content of the dialogue demands chaos. Sometimes it falters, as in Everyone Says I Love You, whose light-heartedness demands less chaos and more felicity. And sometimes it falls on its face, as in Celebrity whose unfocused, distracted plot becomes more unfocused and distracted by actors who are given no sense of direction and who have nothing to do but talk, talk, talk.

What eventually brings Celebrity to its knees is the lack of insight behind all of the talk. Mr. Allen's films are always about loquacious, over-educated New Yorkers, but somehow he was able to make them interesting to under-educated suburbanites like myself. Whether funny (Annie Hall) or serious (Crimes and Misdemeanors), his films always had some semblance of a philosophy behind them that spoke to those people with no other connection to Allen's exclusive world. In recent years though, his films have degenerated into a parade of one-joke caricatures that come and go too fast to establish any connection with the audience. None of the characters are particularly smart, and some are so air-headed they stretch the limits of believability. Their conversations go nowhere, although they make psychoanalytic references galore. It is Allen's version of a thousand monkeys clacking away on typewriters, except that he gathers famous actors and hopes that great thoughts will spring fully-formed from their chatter. But the only things to emerge from their talk are words, words, words.

Worse yet, the protagonist of Celebrity isn't any more interesting than the dumb sirens who surround him. Played by Kenneth Branagh in a performance that tries hard to be Allenesque but never gets past the barely acceptable faux American accent, Lee Simon is a celebrity-chasing reporter for a travel magazine. And like all Woody Allen protagonists, he has a problem with romantic fidelity. He is chasing his latest muse when we meet him, a bad actress played by the bad actress, Melanie Griffith, who in this case is quite good. In the film within the film that she stars in, she sees the word "HELP" written in the sky. This obvious bit of significance is supposed to foreshadow the sense of despair that Lee will feel later as he steeps himself in celebrity culture. Lee is writing a novel, although he never finishes it and we never learn its contents. Through the course of the film, he floats in and out of meaningless affairs with models and actresses (Griffith, Charlize Theron, Winona Ryder, and Famke Janssen), and has a run-in with a Johnny Depp-like teen actor (Leonardo DiCaprio). I suppose we are supposed to enjoy watching Lee drown in a sea of stardom. But Allen never gives us any reason to care about him. (Lee is too fickle and shallow.) As a result, his unwitting self-destruction never resonates emotionally. It was more fun watching Marcello Mastroianni do the same in La Dolce Vita, a film whose lack of organization was calculated and deliberate and therefore more effective at depicting star-crazed decadence.

Lee is estranged from his wife Robin, played by Judy Davis as a woman who seems to be all twitches and halted sentences. Robin eschews the celebrity-chasing life Lee seeks. When we first meet her, she is checking into a Catholic mission, but soon leaves after she discovers that the cafeteria steak is too well done for her liking. Later, she meets a suave television producer (Joe Mantegna) and discovers that celebrityhood may be her natural calling. She becomes a producer of a talent show, and soon gets her own talk program. Twice during the film, she bumps into Lee, and the scenes are meant to contrast the progress each has made in their pursuit of fame. These scenes have the potential to ask some important questions about the nature of being famous, the nature of seeking what one cannot possibly have, and human nature itself. But Allen squanders these opportunities by turning them into verbal sparring matches or poorly choreographed physical comedy stunts. Moreover, the scenes occur too far apart in the film, so that when we see the second, we do not automatically compare it to the first, as I'm sure was Mr. Allen's intent.

It is strange that in a film entitled Celebrity, no conclusive stance is taken towards America's obsession with it. Of course it's a negative stance, but Allen could have honed a more coherent point of view in the 114 minutes he gives himself. What is it about celebrities that make them so attractive? Why do we buy magazines and newspapers and watch TV shows devoted exclusively to celebrities? And if we do achieve fame, is it satisfying? The answer to the last question, based on the fate of the Judy Davis character, seems to be yes. But that contradicts the wildly acerbic point of view Allen establishes with the Branagh character, who has far more screen time. This imbalance of perspectives sadly obscures the dual nature of American stardom (one suffocating, the other liberating) that Allen tries but fails to get across. When the Branagh character sees the word "HELP" again at the end of the film, I suspect it is a cry from Woody Allen himself, wrestling hopelessly with this disorganized mess of a movie.

[rating: 1½ of 4 stars]

Related link: New York Film Festival Web Site

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