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Review: Fading genius revealed in 'Celebrity'

Web posted on:
Monday, November 23, 1998 2:53:44 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Could it be that Woody Allen is simply making too many movies for his own good? Allen has been given an extremely loose leash during his 30 years as a director, one that no other commercial film maker of his time (and I mean no one) has ever enjoyed. One studio or another has always been willing to shell out the money for him to shoot whatever he wants to shoot, no questions asked, and with no concessions towards supposed "commerciality."

Allen's movies are all rather small in scope, so they're consistently cheap to make; the biggest stars in the world clamor to work with him for next to no money; and the end product (if everyone gets lucky) usually grosses about 10 or 15 million bucks at the box office. It's not exactly "Titanic," but, for once, nobody really cares. Playing the game with Woody Allen means you're an artist. And once a self-lauding concept like that gets established in the film industry, it doesn't just go away.

This has been happening for so long now, Allen has started to take the situation for granted, with the result being some embarrassingly lazy screenplays. Gone are the intricate verbal exchanges of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan"'s near-sociological dissections of friends and lovers. Even the somewhat more obvious interplay of "Hannah and Her Sisters" is a distant memory.

A scene from "Celebrity"

Video clip: 2Mb QuickTime

Now, all we seem to get are the blatherings of a very bitter man who doesn't know what to do with himself but point a camera at some actors and have them unload his anger and self-loathing at a captive audience.

Problem cohesion, not comedy

Allen joked in 1980's "Stardust Memories" that people always want to praise his "early, funny movies" in lieu of his more dramatic, character-oriented work. Well, I, for one, used to be obsessed with all of his work. By now, though, I'd be willing to praise him for simply piecing together something that actually holds together as a film, funny or not. Both "Celebrity" and "Deconstructing Harry" play like unfinished ideas for four or five different scripts cobbled together into one, largely indecisive whole.

The point is, if you have something to say, then you should make a movie. And God bless you if you've actually managed to finagle a situation where you get slapped on the back no matter what you do. That part's really a miracle. If you don't have anything to say, though, how about actually waiting for inspiration to hit? It beats a vaguely formed essay about the difficulties that even alluring, coddled-types can have when they're trying to get properly laid.

I know that's pretty blunt, but it's about all there is to "Celebrity," aside from a few completely obvious stabs at understanding what it is that makes a person notorious in this country when they haven't actually done anything worth remembering. Scenes pop out of nowhere that have something to do with the supposedly central topic, then Allen quickly moves on to more jokes about sexual technique and polymorphously perverse fashion models.

This is an empty, shoddily constructed film coming from a man of Allen's significant abilities, and it's a sad thing to see.

Branagh as Woody

Kenneth Branagh, in one of the more ridiculous performances of the year, plays a writer named Lee Simon. A lot of cracks were made a few years back about the unlikely coupling of "Old Man" Allen and Julia Roberts in "Everyone Says I Love You." So Branagh has now been enlisted, not to act, but to "play Woody."

Long-legged bombshells throw themselves at Simon throughout the film, and Branagh responds by growing increasingly flustered in the appropriately charming manner. Every tic, stammer, and gesture is in place, with Branagh coming off more as an elegant Rich Little than one of the better actors of his generation. The credits should more properly read "Kenneth Branagh," with quote marks securely in place.

Simon is there to serve as our guide through the inherent shallowness of modern celebrity, but Allen is far too concerned with exploring grade-A fellatio to stay nailed to that topic for very long. Simon is a travel writer whose marriage (to the splendid Judy Davis, hyperventilating the exact meltdown scenes that she supplied to "Husbands and Wives" and "Deconstructing Harry") has fallen apart because he's decided he wants a taste of the glamorous life.

He's been struggling to write a serious novel, but he also has a screenplay getting kicked around town, and he'd like to sample some of the goodies that come with riding in the wake of the more overtly desirable people on the planet.

There's no pull to the story whatsoever; Lee just swims around until he gets tangled up in a net, breaks free, then gets tangled up in another one. If you want to make a film about why "average" people worship certain media creations beyond all reason, it might be nice if you had even the vaguest understanding of what real life is like.

There have got to be entertainment writers all over the country chuckling at the kind of access Lee has to a drop-dead supermodel (played very amusingly by the stunning Charlize Theron.) Forget access, though. How many supermodels out there are going to climb into a car with a middle-age freelance writer after a runway show and start offering up her thermonuclear body to him?

Blonde bombshells abound

This enviable sexual altruism trails Branagh throughout the movie. In one of the opening scenes, Melanie Griffith, playing (take a guess) a blonde bombshell actress, agrees to visit her childhood home with Branagh during an interview. The old woman who now lives there quite unbelievably lets the two strangers climb the stairs to the actress' former bedroom, where Griffith grows so hot and bothered she just has to perform some big-time movie star oral sex on Woody ... I mean, Ken.

It's hard to figure out why Lee is so miserable when he seems to be oozing enough musk for 10 lesser men. Later in the film, he takes up with another feline being, this one in the body of a knockout book publisher played by Famke Janssen.

She's planning to move in with Branagh until he realizes that he's actually in love with a young actress, never mind that Allen barely shows the two characters interacting before this revelation. The actress is played by none other than that tasty morsel known as Winona Ryder, in all her sparkling, big-eyed glory. Branagh doesn't stumble into an orgy with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but that's probably because the movie's only two hours long.

He does, however, stumble into an orgy with Leonardo DiCaprio, Gretchen Mol, and another actress who looks like she fell out of the pages of "Penthouse" magazine. (DiCaprio is not exactly challenged by the role of an over-sexed, spoiled-brat movie star.) This is one of those sequences that pretends to deal with the concept of celebrity, but really just deals with the concept of empty sex with seductive ciphers. It's there for a minute and then it's gone, just like everything else in the film.

An open plea for help?

There's also a lengthy subplot concerning Davis' courtship with a TV producer (played by Joe Mantegna). This cues a thoroughly humiliating scene in which Davis enlists the talents of a call girl (Bebe Neuwirth) to teach her how to perform oral sex while using a banana as a penis substitute. Honestly, now -- what's the deal with the sudden oral fixation?! Allen, the Great Seeker, must find Monica Lewinsky utterly fascinating.

The last shot of the movie rather poignantly shows Branagh staring up at a filmed image of an airplane skywriting the word "HELP" over the lonely fortresses of Manhattan.

Allen may be having trouble focusing nowadays, but he's no idiot. He knows that a lot of people (aware as they are of the turmoil in his personal life as well as the ever-shrinking artistic achievement of his films) will read that as a desperate plea. Unfortunately, much of the rambling in "Celebrity" suggests that the desperation is fully appropriate.

I'm almost afraid to see what this guy tosses off next time around. If he somehow finds out about anal sex, there could be picketing.

"Celebrity" contains a great deal of harsh language, which made its sudden, unexpected appearance in Allen's work with "Mighty Aphrodite." There's a lot of sex, too, but no nudity. Somebody needs a new psychiatrist. Rated R. 120 minutes. Shot, for no apparent reason, in striking black-and-white by the legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

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