Celebrity (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Woody Allen's 1998 feature entry, Celebrity, is arguably his weakest film in half a decade, failing to reach the level of entertaining mediocrity attained by such middle-of-the-road features as Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry, and falling far short of the mark established by Everyone Says I Love You and Bullets Over Broadway. That's not to say that there's nothing worthwhile in Celebrity. In fact, some of the sequences in this black-and-white, episodic ensemble piece are riotously funny, but there aren't enough good moments to counterbalance the negatives. As a result, Celebrity turns out to be a minor footnote on this year's holiday film release roster. (It is also another disappointment for Miramax Films, which has been suffering through an awful year.)

After appearing in three consecutive films, Allen has elected to remain behind the camera for this outing (perhaps, after doing the lead vocal performance in Antz and being featured in the documentary Wild Man Blues, he felt overexposed). Nevertheless, his presence is palpable, because lead actor Kenneth Branagh has elected to play his part, that of journalist Lee Simon, as if he was Allen. It's an odd and disconcerting experience. All of the Allen mannerisms and vocal inflections, including the stammering and whining, are there. In fact, there are times when, if you close your eyes, you'll swear that it's Allen on the screen, not Branagh. If there was an Oscar for perfect mimicry, Branagh would win it hands down. The problem is, we're used to Branagh as Hamlet or Henry V, not Woody Allen. Somehow, it's difficult to accept the actor as a neurotic, sex-obsessed New York Jew.

As distracting as Branagh's performance can be, it's not the critical flaw. That comes from the screenplay, which meanders aimlessly, stumbling forward without an apparent destination. The characters are not only poorly-developed, but they fail to capture the viewer's sympathy or arouse any real interest, resulting in a parcel of failed semi-dramatic moments. This might have been forgivable if the comedy had been at a higher level, but, although Celebrity offers laughs, the humor is inconsistent. In jumping from episode to episode, the movie displays a frustrating unevenness, rarely giving a supporting character more than a few moments on screen. Unfortunately, for every segment that works, there's at least one that doesn't.

Lee Simon, a feature writer for a travel magazine, is at the center of Celebrity. A would-be novelist and screenwriter, Lee can often be found trying to solicit support for his script from high-profile actors and actresses (Melanie Griffith and Leonardo DiCaprio play his primary targets) or talking to editors about whether there's any interest in his book. As must be true of any protagonist in an Allen movie, Lee's love life is all screwed up. He has recently left his wife, Robin (Judy Davis, in her fourth outing for the director), and is hopping from tryst to tryst. His partners and would-be partners include a "polymorphously perverse" model (Charlize Theron) who can experience an orgasm when touched anywhere on her body, a statuesque book editor (Famke Janssen), and a sweet-but-mysterious brunette (Winona Ryder). Celebrity is basically about Lee's attempts to get his life together, decide what he wants to do when he grows up, and determine who he wants to spend his waning years with (your basic mid-life crisis). And, in typical Allen fashion, none of these questions ever gets answered.

There is a secondary storyline that progresses in parallel with Lee's - that of his ex-wife, Robin. In many ways, she's more neurotic than her husband, and, when she finds herself on her own, she is terrified by the prospect. Before long, she meets a charismatic man (Joe Mantegna) who changes her life and outlook on the future. But her old worries are not gone, only buried, and, despite lessons from a prostitute (Bebe Neuwirth) about how to properly eat a banana, she is obsessed with the belief that her newfound happiness is doomed.

As is always the case, Allen has gathered an exceptional cast. In addition to Branagh, who's around for the entire film, Judy Davis and Joe Mantegna have a fair amount of screen time. Both are charismatic; sadly, neither is portraying a particularly well-written individual. Everyone else - Charlize Theron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen, Michael Lerner, Winona Ryder, and so on - makes a quick appearance or two, then vanishes. In the case of Theron and Janssen, this is disappointing, since these two bring life and energy to the scenes they're in. Theron's episode is the movie's liveliest and funniest, although it is challenged by a segment in which Lee attends a movie screening and another where he hangs out with a hot young movie star (DiCaprio) who trashes a hotel room, browbeats his girlfriend, then goes on a sex, drugs, and gambling trip to Atlantic City. (DiCaprio fans take note: the newest matinee idol is only in Celebrity for about 10 minutes, and his character, which lampoons the actor's own off-screen image, is not a nice person.)

At its heart, this movie wants to say something about the way America views its celebrities. In a country without royalty, models and movie stars fill the vacuum. Allen's approach to the theme is tentative, however, and it never comes across clearly. In fact, much of what he's trying to say gets lost in the typical angst that permeates anything to come from the prolific writer/director's pen. Celebrity is by turns funny, intriguing, and boring, but, even at its best, it's never brilliant or compelling. It is a recognized truth of the movie industry that even the best film makers will have disappointments, and, for Woody Allen, Celebrity fits into that category.

Celebrity (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1