Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Winona Ryder, Joe Mantegna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, Famke Janssen, Melanie Griffith, Bebe Neuwirth, Gretchen Mol, Hank Azaria, Michael Lerner. (1998, R, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 20, 1998
Woody Allen skewers the cult of personality in Celebrity with the pointedness of a cocktail fork. Purportedly a seriocomic contemplation on a civilization that's lost its way, the movie jabs at America's fascination with its false idols without ever hitting its target. It's little more than a series of tableaux in which supermodels, film stars, best-selling authors, television personalities, and other “who's who” are offered up as golden calves worshipped at the altar of popular culture, as objects to be disdained, ridiculed, and clichéd in the guise of a higher calling. So what's Woody Allen? Chopped liver? There's no question that Allen has created a body of work that includes some of the most literate, personal, and affecting films about the foibles of the human heart: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives. But who is he to divorce himself so entirely from the cultural philistinism that he finds so subversive? There's no doubt that Allen positions himself as such because he's allowed Branagh, who plays a frustrated writer experiencing an existential mid-life crisis, to annoyingly impersonate him in Celebrity. Portrayed -- at least in theory -- as a lost soul, Branagh's character struggles with the superficiality of what passes today as artistic endeavor and aspires to achieve something more meaningful: He's the writer of magazine fluff pieces and screenplays about armored-car heists who abandons those trivial pursuits for the more honorable profession of novelist. He's also a jerk when it comes to his relationships with women, engaging in that honored pastime in the Allen oeuvre of always meeting someone else at the most inopportune time. By the film's end, Allen's romanticized doppleganger is depicted as a floundering man in need of a lifesaver, but it's impossible to work up any empathy, or even an objectified pity, for him. (Maybe this is a movie that only Allen's shrinks could love.) While Celebrity has some funny moments, they don't compensate for its disconnected structure and misguided aim. In fact, the entire movie has the feel of a work in search of a context. The black-and-white cinematography, the metropolitan setting, and the subject matter bring to mind the wondrous La Dolce Vita, but the comparison is a pale one indeed. Where Fellini reveled in the Roman jet-set society that he critiqued, Allen stands at a distance. That's Allen's problem with Celebrity -- he's afraid to embrace it, so that he might understand it.