In his engaging biography of Woody Allen, Eric Lax recalls Tennessee Williams’ famous response to a reporter who asked him to define happiness: “Insensitivity, I guess.”

That’s the kind of observation that could hardly be lost on Allen, whose work has often dealt with overcoming a fundamental unhappiness. In some of the films, his characters overcome their unhappiness, and in others, they have to learn to accept it. In his new one, Celebrity, Judy Davis trades anger and bitterness for a makeover and her own television program. She comes out of Allen’s latest wringer in a state of vapid bliss — the loss of her deep-seated neuroses is key to a new contentedness that Allen seems to equate with a lobotomy. I suppose it’s irony that her character is the one who gets to blurt out, after ducking into a fortune teller’s storefront, “You can tell a lot about a society by who it chooses to celebrate.”

So what does Celebrity tell us about society? Beats me. Celebrity feels fundamentally comfy, especially in its off-handed evaluation of the culture of stardom. While I suppose it’s a subject this director should feel as qualified as anyone to comment on, Allen has declined to tweak his typically dry directorial style to emulate, mock, or even comment on the current high-gloss media fashion. That’s his prerogative, and there’s no way of knowing whether a more ambitious version of this film would be any more or less embarrassing than this one.

What we’ve got is an unfocused collection of satirical character sketches, like a laid-back Robert Altman flick or a particularly artsy Saturday Night Live. The major characters are Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his ex-wife Robin (Davis). Lee is a failed novelist turned travel writer turned celebrity journalist, and the film turns on his varied encounters with actors, models, and other high-fliers in the entertainment firmament. You can imagine: there’s Melanie Griffith’s squeaky-voiced starlet, Charlize Theron’s statuesque uberwoman, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s high-strung teen idol.

Celebrity does have a knack for casting folks like these in exactly the right roles, which is a big part of what saves the film from ignominy. While not exactly suggesting that Griffith herself is a bimbo, or DiCaprio a deceptively charming asshole, the characterizations play on the celebrity status of those performers, and function as both reflection and funhouse distortion. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much to actually say about America’s celebrity fixation, the nature of being a celebrity, or celebrities themselves. Would it have been too much to ask that, in his search for meaning, Woody not invoke Andy Warhol and those “15 minutes of fame”? Apparently so. Is there any chance he could avoid the obligatory scene at a plastic surgeon’s office? Nope.

Maybe, just this once, it would have been appropriate for Woody to hop on an airplane and shoot a film in Los Angeles, where his scabrous take on West Coast culture might have made this stuff crackle. But instead of new settings and ideas, Celebrity falls back on some old ones. While Deconstructing Harry‘s self-reflexivity excused its pillaging of Woody’s back catalog for material (the elevator ride to Hell was originally staged for Annie Hall, but discarded), Celebrity feels downright recycled.

The problems start with the character of Simon, which is obviously the Woody Allen role stepped down about 20 years. While it’s kind of amusing to see Branagh playing the Woody surrogate — flawlessly — this isn’t a role that shows him off to best advantage. Scriptwise, Allen writes what he knows, to this character’s detriment — it’s a little jarring to hear an ostensible hipster like Simon quoting “Prufrock” and hanging out at dusty old Elaine’s. Why this nebbish-by-proxy is such a babe magnet (getting action from Theron, Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen and Winona Ryder) is never addressed. I mean, he’s a journalist, for Christ’s sake! And when we see Branagh’s character making exactly the same grevious mistakes that Woody’s did in Manhattan (callously ditching the woman who really loves him [Janssen] for the promise of something more vacuous but somehow exciting [Ryder], then finding he can never put things right), the jig’s just up. His expert mimicry can’t channel Woody’s wit and charm, and Branagh founders.

One of the film’s best bits, with a stunning Theron juicing it up as a “polymorphously perverse” supermodel, builds to an inevitable anticlimax — Branagh’s beloved Aston Martin gets trashed in a perfunctory bad orgasm of a gag. Also noteworthy is Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as a brat movie star who beats up his girlfriend before staging a hotel-room foursome with Branagh and two gorgeous hangers-on. It’s not American Psycho (alas!), but it’s a deliciously crass send-up of the new Hollywood “it” boy.

Elsewhere, the film falls startlingly flat. The performances are quite good, as is the black-and-white camerawork of ace D.P. Sven Nykvist, but, you know, there’s only so much you can do to prop up limp satire and blow-job jokes. With its handful of laugh-out-loud moments, Celebrity isn’t terrible by any means. Just inconsequential.

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist
Edited by Susan Morse
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Famke Janssen, and Joe Mantegna
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
USA, 1998

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