Celebrity (review)

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Fame Games

I get a kick out of Kenneth Branagh’s American accent. I don’t know why — probably the fact that it’s just so darn good is part of the reason. So I amused myself by listening to it for a few minutes as Celebrity opened… until I realized that Branagh was doing Woody Allen.

I don’t mean doing Woody Allen — it’s hard to write anything about Allen these days that doesn’t come out sounding like sexual innuendo, I know. No, Branagh was impersonating Allen, stuttering, hand-wringing, and all. Sure, Branagh’s Lee Simon is the Allen stand-in here — Celebrity is written and directed by Allen — but was it really necessary for Branagh to imitate all of Allen’s mannerisms?

Whether Branagh-as-Woody gets on your nerves will depend, I suspect, on how big a Woody (oops, there’s that innuendo again) fan you are. I’m not all that thrilled with most of Allen’s work. He’s a fine enough filmmaker, I suppose, but all too often any enjoyment I might get from his films is overshadowed by how damn annoying his characters always are. I always want to smack him, if only to get him to shut up his whining.
Woody– I mean Lee… Lee is a journalist, divorced from his wife, Robin (Judy Davis, from Absolute Power, annoyingly and unsurprisingly channeling Mia Farrow) and sowing his wild oats. How likely is it that a travel writer is going to have the opportunity to interview a world famous actress like Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith, Lolita), and then get a blow job from her? Likeliness doesn’t matter — this is Allen’s adolescent fantasy. How likely is it that that same writer would then go on to cover a lingerie fashion show, and pick up an incredibly gorgeous, impossibly highly sexed supermodel (Charlize Theron: Mighty Joe Young, Devil’s Advocate)? Doesn’t matter — Lee is the same slobbering nebbish Allen’s characters always are, drooling over women who seem strong enough not to need that kind of desperate attention and yet invariably fall into his arms anyway.

As you’d expect from a filmmaker who left his all-but wife to marry their adopted daughter, Robin, Lee’s ex, is not exactly portrayed sympathetically, despite the fact that she’s equally as screwed up as Lee. Woefully lacking in self-confidence and “too inhibited,” she’s the same mass of hyperactive mannerisms and tics that Lee is. These drawbacks she learns to overcome, though, by changing careers from prim schoolteacher to celebrity television reporter, thanks to her new boyfriend, news producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna).

So both Lee and Robin have useful reasons for wandering through vaguely interconnected sketches highlighting the follies and foibles of the famous, and they’re what’s worth watching Celebrity for. From Theron’s echinacea-addicted model to a television preacher the faithful fawn over; from a glitzy plastic surgeon whose press has gone to his head to the deference and respect with which Tony’s family treats him; from an artsy movie director, “one of those assholes who films all his movies in black and white” (as Celebrity is), to Leonardo DiCaprio’s (Romeo + Juliet, Titanic) brilliant cameo as a bad-boy actor that I suspect Leo had lots of fun with, Allen makes pointed, ironic, and very funny commentary. It’s just too bad we had to go along on this ride with two overgrown children like Lee and Robin.

I know: One of the points of Celebrity is the superficiality of fame and those who court it. Lee is supposed to be rather pathetic, and the fact that the film ends with his metaphoric cry for help as he sits in a sea of the famous at a movie premiere is meant to let us know that Lee is aware of how big a loser he is. But what always bugs me about Allen’s movies is that if his characters change at all, if they learn from the meandering experiences we witness, they don’t take any action until after the credits roll. Sure, perhaps Lee decided to straighten himself out, perhaps Robin realized what a shallow idiot she’d become. But we’ll never know for sure.

Still, any movie with bit parts by Hank Azaria and Bebe Neuwirth can’t be all bad.

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