Celebrity is Woody Allen’s nineties twist on La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s classic portrayal of Italian high society. The prolific director’s latest New York story explores both the peculiar qualifications that earn one fame and society’s pathetic yearning for the latest fifteen minute American Dream.
Kenneth Branagh is Lee Simon, a entertainment journalist and aspiring novelist who flirts with the idea of putting his talents toward a more useful endeavor, screen-writing. Incapable of fidelity in marriage (and even in affairs), the frumpy middle-aged bachelor has an uncanny ability to attract the attention of many beautiful, young woman. In other words, the protagonist is a reincarnation of that very familiar Woody Allen leading man. Simon’s line of work brings him into tantalizingly close proximity with the beautiful people, including a movie starlet (Melanie Griffith) and a devastating runway temptress (Charlize Theron), both of whom, implausibly, give him much more than the time of day.
While Branagh wavers between attempting to join the Hollywood crowd and trying to capture the insanity of celebrity culture in a book, his ex-wife (Judy Davis) encounters fame in a more roundabout way. The Chaucer-loving schoolteacher is devastated by the unexpected end of their sixteen year marriage. By a stroke of magnificent luck, her prince in shining armor appears sans white horse. Joe Mantegna plays Joseph Bologna, an aptly named producer of trash TV. He not only assertively sweeps the reluctant divorcee off her feet, he gives her a job behind the scenes of his Springer-esque talk show. In this milieu, Allen captures that other species of American fame: the freak. The best scene of the movie takes place when hooded Ku Klux Klanners, skinhead neo-nazis, Afro-centric leaders and a hungry rabbi amicably attack a spread of complimentary snack-food.
The theme of celebrity culture provides Allen with a large palette to work from. Perhaps it is too broad: the movie jerks schizophrenically from scene to scene straining the already weak plot line. A parade of colorful characters passes by far too quickly; many barely even get their allotted fifteen minutes. Bebe Neuwirth superbly portrays a no-nonsense prostitute. Winona Ryder does the over-analyzing, pill-popping, aspiring actress gig with considerable finesse. Much talk about Celebrity has focused on Leonardo DiCaprio’s small role as a megastar bad boy. Whether you are obsessed or overdosed on young (and undeniably talented) Leo, you cant help but savor the convergence of life and art. (Celebrity was filmed before Titanic-mania crowned him king of the world.). The requisite cameo appearances in this Woody Allen film are less than memorable. However, they actually could be considered to serve a purpose (i.e., irony) in this film on fame.
Luck is often a major factor is the distribution of celebrity, and this movie got a fair share of just such good fortune. In addition to having fortuitously cast DiCaprio, Celebrity reaped the benefits of several other unforeseeable sources of humor. Isaac Mizrahi (the fashion designer who recently lost his line of clothing dues to poor sales) has a bit part as a trendy artist who is vocally distraught that his work is being purchased by individuals who don’t fully appreciate the art. Oral sex is a reoccurring source of humor. The audience laughed at these scenes more than any of the jokes could possibly have deserved, no doubt thanks to the indiscretion of our celebrity President.
In the comic lead, Kenneth Branagh plays Woody Allen well. Unfortunately, he was actually cast as the fictional protagonist, Lee Simon. You could argue that Lee Simon, a creation of Woody Allen, is an alter ego of the director and should be played as such. Maybe, but it is impossible to get over the disconcerting feeling that Branagh is doing an impression, not acting a part. By relinquishing his screen presence, maybe Woody has finally accepted that, at 60 years old, he can no longer pretend to seduce nubile young actresses. However, it remains inconceivable that so many beautiful women fall for Branagh’s awkward, overweight Simon.
Unachieved ambition is the film’s greatest weakness. Celebrity merely skims the surface of its subject matter. Time and time again, situations arise that cry out for a thorough dose of Allen’s unique brand of wit, but instead they receive barely a cliche observation. There’s the fashion show, the gallery opening, the club scene, the plastic surgeon’s office, the mob of fans, the talk show backstage, two movie premieres, the boxing match: all fleeting, frivolous, lost opportunities. The (presumably) climactic moments merely prod the characters forward, soon to be forgotten without any lingering import.
Celebrity is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s actually quite good in that distinctive Woody Allen way. But Celebrity is severely disappointing. America’s obsession with fame is an intriguing phenomenon, replete with targets for Allen’s trenchant insight and sardonic humor. He tempted us but failed to deliver.
However, if the notion of celebrity is fraught with general capriciousness and superficiality, perhaps this film has hit right on target.