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
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. C