"Celebrity" opens and closes with a shot of the word "Help!" spelled out
by a skywriter above Manhattan. After this ramshackle film and last
year's uncomfortably self-referential "Deconstructing Harry," I wonder if
Woody Allen has reflected on the very public mess he has made of his life
and is at last crying out for assistance.
"You can tell a lot about a society by who it chooses to celebrate," says
Judy Davis, providing a handy Cliffs Notes summation of the film's
message for those viewers who may have nodded off. Thirty years ago, the
statement might have been profound, but after countless examinations of
the Western world's obsession with celebrity, the line merely serves as
an indicator of just how clueless Allen has become.
"Celebrity" follows the lives of a pair of neurotic New Yorkers (what a
surprise!); struggling writer Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his ex-wife,
former schoolteacher Robin (Judy Davis). As Woody's surrogate, Branagh
does an adept, and often irritating, impression of Allen, reproducing
every gesture, stammer and tic. In standard Allen fashion, Lee is a whiny
womanizer seemingly incapable of maintaining an honest, monogamous
relationship. When not occupied with skirt-chasing, he plays sycophant to
various big shots, peddling a screenplay about an armored-car heist.
Meanwhile, the high-strung Robin makes tentative stabs at changing her
life, traveling from a religious retreat (the priest is a television
celebrity) to a high-profile plastic surgeon (he's followed by a TV crew
after being christened "the Michelangelo of Manhattan" by Newsweek).
Eventually, she hooks up with a television producer (Joe Mantegna) and
becomes an on-air reporter, achieving her own celebrity status.
Lee and Robin's mid-life crises serve as the framework for a series of
sketches; some quite funny, some very flat and none particularly
insightful. There's a hilarious backstage scene at a daytime talk show,
where gangsters, religious figures and neo-Nazis comfortably mingle,
complaining about their agents while hovering around the buffet table.
"What is this," says a rabbi in mock chiding tones to a group of jack-
booted thugs, "did the skinheads eat all the bagels?"
One of the film's best sequences involves Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a
pampered young superstar given to hard-partying and violent outbursts.
Even as the police are arresting him for trashing a hotel room and
terrorizing his date, Lee pitches his script to the glib bad-boy. Thanks
to the kid's celebrity status, the charges are hastily dropped and Lee is
swept away to Atlantic City with Leo and his entourage, where he
continues trying to insinuate himself even as Leo urges him to join in a
drugged-out orgy. DiCaprio is excellent as the self-absorbed hedonist, by
the way, using a non-stop stream of compliments and commands to manage
those around him.
Unfortunately, for every vignette that works, there are two that don't.
One of the worst comes when Robin, believing that her Catholic guilt has
made her less than satisfactory in bed, asks an upscale hooker (Bebe
Neuwirth) for lessons. After a extremely funny exchange ("What do you
think about during oral sex?," asks Neuwirth. "The Crucifixion," answers
Robin), the scene degenerates into a tired let's-use-bananas-to-practice-
blow-jobs routine. Apparently, Woody Allen missed "Fast Times At
Ridgemont High" and all the other comedies that have used the same bit.
A high-school reunion scene with Lee falls just as flat, with the writer
making contemptuous observations about his fellow classmates before
declaring, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls -- or more accurately, for
whom the toilet flushes." It's hard to imagine those words coming from
the pen of the man who wrote "Annie Hall."
Beyond the hit or miss nature of the comedy and the discomfort of
watching Kenneth Branagh do a two hour Woody Allen impression, the
biggest problem with "Celebrity" is that the concept, as well as Allen's
shtick, are so very tiresome. After a while, the quips and tart exchanges
degenerate into mere chatter as the film drags on for what seems like
forever. Even the impressive mega-cast (stand-outs include DiCaprio,
Neuwirth, Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen,
Bebe Neuwirth, and Michael Lerner) can't compensate for the lazy writing,
haphazard style and wearying been-there-done-that nature of the black and
white movie. "Celebrity" is Woody Allen's 27th feature. Hopefully, he'll
wait until he has something new to say before doing his 28th.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott