Mostly classy star-gazing Review: Kenneth Branagh's increasingly tired turn as the Woody Allen character doesn't bleed all the charm from 'Celebrity.'

November 20, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

What do actors, models, presidents, the pope, Elvis, Hollywood madams, plastic surgeons, ACLU lawyers, skinheads, teen-age obese acrobats, Joey Buttafuoco, Donald Trump, former CIA operatives, real estate agents, transvestites and Charles Manson have in common?

They are all guaranteed their 15 minutes of fame in a post-Warhol world, and they all make an appearance in "Celebrity," Woody Allen's fitfully funny, elegantly rendered musing on American culture's curious relationship to fame.

"You can tell a lot about a society by whom it chooses to celebrate," one character says in this slight but often droll commentary on the voracious maw of post-modern media culture, which swallows everyone in its path regardless of merit or morals. Drawing inspiration from his usual stable -- Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, any number of teen-age nymphets -- Allen has made a film that, while not nearly achieving the heights of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," is at least his most humane movie in a long while.

Allen does not make an appearance in "Celebrity," but he has made up for his absence by directing Kenneth Branagh to impersonate him down to every stammer and nervous shrug. And Branagh is often quite funny as Lee Simon, the celebrity journalist (and wannabe screenwriter) whose gigs take him to bed with a blond starlet (Melanie Griffith), to a trendy restaurant with a polymorphously perverse lingerie model (Charlize Theron) and to a coke-infused sexual escapade with a pugnacious movie star (Leonardo DiCaprio). But in time, Branagh's Allen impression begins to wear out its welcome, becoming a gratingly self-conscious distraction.

Still, as a froth of vignettes and witty observations, "Celebrity" has its share of charms. There's its cast, whose characters Allen interweaves in a string of eye-popping bijoux. Griffith, Theron and DiCaprio -- who turns in a hilariously self-referential take on his bad-boy image -- are only a few of the dazzling faces caught in the filmmaker's acute gaze. Get a load of these stunners: Famke Janssen, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Isaac Mizrahi and Gretchen Mol all make appearances, slouching across the Manhattan landscape in louche, smoky style. Bebe Neuwirth brings mordant class to the role of a prostitute, a convention that, in a disappointing trend, has become as de rigueur in Allen's work as a stop at Elaine's.

Stuck in a role as yet another raging harridan, Judy Davis again makes heroic work of a tired character. Her story line -- she starts out as a schoolteacher and winds up married to a great guy (Mantegna) and becomes a deeply blonded tele-whore -- is one of the movie's funniest narrative strands; surely it's the most cynical.

"Celebrity" snaps and slithers with Allen's trademark fusillade of cultural references and verbal arabesques, all of which manage somehow to be about sex, which usually manages to be with a gorgeous young woman. (One reason Allen may have cast Branagh as himself is that audiences find the younger actor more palatable when he's seducing the women.)

When Allen isn't making fun of his own sexual obsessions and inadequacies, he is busy sending up the New York he loves and continues to be confounded by. Some of the best gags -- Lee keeling over when a New York Times critic excoriates his first novel at a party; a man breaking up with a woman even while moving men are schlepping her boxes into his apartment; an apartment with a room full of sand to remind its owners of the Hamptons -- all are funny precisely because they're so probable in a city as addicted to surface appearance as to the grit that underlies it.

"Celebrity" is less satire than wistful comic cerebration, but its slenderness is more than made up for by its jazzy, silky look. Filmed in glorious black and white by Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, "Celebrity" is a grand celebration of film itself, rescuing the mall that Manhattan has become and reinstating it as a place of elegance and allure, its velvety shadows filled with ++ mystery, romance and knowing laughter.


Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron

Directed by Woody Allen

Released by Miramax Films

Rated R (language, sex and some drug use)

Running time 113 minutes

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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