“Celebrity” sounds like something Woody Allen knows a thing or two about. Lionized as a writer, filmmaker and stand-up comic, with a personal life that’s been as talked about as President Clinton’s, who better than Allen to examine what it is to be famous? Or so you’d think.
Scattered, phlegmatic and an all-around weak effort, “Celebrity” turns out instead to be one of Allen’s periodic misfires. And, ironically enough, one of the reasons for its off-putting nature is a miscalculation on someone’s part about the nature of Allen’s own celebrity.
Allen structures this episodic film around the messy misadventures of a pair of unsympathetic neurotics who are married at first but split up almost at once. Robin Simon (Judy Davis) is a teacher and her ex-husband Lee (Kenneth Branagh) is a journalist, blocked novelist and would-be screenwriter who is trying to get a script he describes as “an armored car robbery with a strong personal crisis” into production.
For reasons unknown, Branagh has been allowed to play this part as a close imitation of how Allen himself would have done it. Hearing the mannerisms and verbal patterns that characterize this most distinctive of American comic voices come awkwardly out of the mouth of someone else is disconcerting and irritating, the equivalent of having Daniel Day-Lewis spending an entire movie talking like Sylvester Stallone. It’s a personality transplant miscalculation “Celebrity” never recovers from.
It doesn’t help matters that Lee Simon is a thoroughly despicable person, a callow and ambitious phony always on the make--and one who is whiny and mean-spirited in the bargain. Allen has written parts like this for himself, most recently in the scathing but memorable “Deconstructing Harry,” but absent his own leavening presence this character is simply too miserable to care about.
Lee’s work as a journalist leads him to a motley collection of celebrity encounters with the likes of movie star Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith) and a top model played by Charlize Theron, whom he typically greets by saying, “If the universe has any meaning, I’m looking at it.”
These vignettes, plus scenes at literary hangout Elaine’s and the offices of a plastic surgeon to the stars, play like a random collection of pro forma celebrity-related items. There is no insight and surprisingly little humor, and even the presence of Supernova-of-the-Moment Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t manage to liven things up.
Lee’s ex-wife Robin has the good fortune to meet a swell guy named Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), who works as a TV news producer, but all she can do about it is neurotically dither about her options. And Lee’s romantic entanglements with book editor Bonnie (Famke Janssen) and waitress-actress Nola (Winona Ryder) are equally tedious.
Shot in black and white by the veteran Sven Nykvist, “Celebrity” revisits many of Allen’s by now familiar situations, themes and preoccupations, from attractive women in skimpy clothing to jokes about oral sex. It’s capable of surprising a laugh out of you from time to time, but mostly it has the feeling, as Allen’s lesser efforts often do, of an early draft that should have been reworked before it went before the camera.
“Celebrity” makes periodic stabs at being about something, with one character saying, “You can tell a lot about a society by who it chooses to celebrate,” but once it’s over it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. The last image on screen is the word “HELP” being spelled out by a skywriter. It’s what this film desperately needs.
* MPAA rating: R for language, sex and some drug use. Times guidelines: frequent references, both verbal and visual, to sexual activity.
Hank Azaria: David
Kenneth Branagh: Lee Simon
Judy Davis: Robin Simon
Leonardo DiCaprio: Brandon Darrow
Melanie Griffith: Nicole Oliver
Famke Janssen: Bonnie
Michael Lerner: Dr. Lupus
Joe Mantegna: Tony Gardella
Bebe Neuwirth: Hooker
Winona Ryder: Nola
Charlize Theron: Supermodel
A Jean Doumanian production, released by Miramax Films. Director Woody Allen. Producer Jean Doumanian. Executive producer J.E. Beaucaire. Screenplay Woody Allen. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Editor Susan E. Morse. Costumes Suzy Benzinger. Production design Santo Loquasto. Art director Tom Warren. Set decorator Susan Kaufman. Running time: 2 hours.