Woody Allen’s Celebrity begins and ends with a cry for help – in skywriting above the streets of Manhattan – but we would do him and his very entertaining new movie a kindness by pretending not to notice.
Certainly Celebrity has “Something To Tell Us” about the media-clogged, 15-minutes-of-fame, Entertainment Tonight/ Weekly culture that may zombify us all before we hit the millennium.
Still, it’s nothing that we shouldn’t have figured out for ourselves long ago; as a jeremiad, the film is thin and obvious.
But as a sardonic, almost ruefully affectionate “Welcome to my world”, Celebrity has more wit and verve than anything Allen’s done in years. Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh doing a bemusingly blatant takeoff on Allen’s own shticks and mannerisms) is one of the bottom-feeders of the New Babylon, a freelance writer of celebrity profiles (what a ruination of a good word!).
He takes sustenance from rubbing shoulders with the glitterati and cherishes the notion that he’s an undiscovered novelist and screenwriter, though the novel remains unwritten and his screenplay remains essentially unread.
In his private life he’s a haplessly philandering husband who unceremoniously dumps his rattled spouse, Robin (Allen’s most redoubtable actress of recent years, Judy Davis). For all his (carefully limited) access to the rich and famous, Lee is on a chute to oblivion greased with his own flop sweat.
For all her dithery insecurities and desperate grabs after spiritual and physical renovation, the mousy Robin is in healing mode – and destined to become an unlikely star herself. Speaking of stars, Allen’s own celebrity-artist status has always enabled him to hire solid actors and provocative new personalities to flesh out his casts – then, often as not, give them precious little to do.
Celebrity marks a happy exception to that pattern. Though Melanie Griffith has only to fall back on her patented kewpie-doll allure as a movie star who gives Lee an exclusive beyond his fondest imaginings, Charlize Theron is genuinely witty at incarnating a glam icon identified only as Supermodel.
Famke Janssen is terrific as the literary agent who embraces both Lee and his career as a novelist, only to receive a crash course in inveterate-schmuckdom. In an, er, jaw-dropping first for mainstream American cinema, Bebe Neuwirth deploys her Lilith deadpan as a hooker instructing Robin in the finer points of fellatio… here’s the clip;
And while Winona Ryder may or may not know how aptly she embodies the sensitive screen dreamgirl who is a tiny- voiced blank at heart, Leonardo DiCaprio limns a fully committed, encyclopedically scathing portrait of a showbiz King of the World whose self-indulgence trashes everybody and everything within range.
In yet another welcome departure from recent form (lessness), Celebrity eschews the aggressively indolent camerawork of Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery, et al., in favor of snappy black-and-white cinematography by Sven Nykvist.
The film’s snake-swallowing-its-tail structure finally implicates the audience itself in the shell game of image and substance the characters so desperately play at. But we’ve learned to live with it.