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Celebrity

Review by Gregory Avery
       
Posted 20 November 1998

  Written and Directed by Woody Allen.

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis,
Charleze Theron, Joe Mantegna,
Famke Janssen, Leonardo DiCaprio,
Bebe Neuwirth and Winona Ryder.

Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio is in this film, we'll get to him in a little bit.

At the beginning of Celebrity, Woody Allen's new film, we see Kenneth Branagh as Lee Simon, a writer who is doing hack-work entertainment journalism, meeting an actress named Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith) to do a story on her. Nicole takes him to the house where she was born in (now tenanted by someone else, who, with some bewilderment, lets them in), goes upstairs to the room that used to be her bedroom when she was a kid, flops on the bed and tells Lee how she "used to lay here and watch my body develop". She and Lee buzz around each other, but she keeps teasing him, telling him that her body is reserved for her husband -- the camera teases us, too, frames her compact little body, in a short white dress, from the neck down in several instances -- until finally she says, "What I do from the neck up is another thing."

Cut to Robin (Judy Davis), Lee's ex-wife, staying at a Catholic retreat after her contentious break-up with him. In between complaining that the beds are too hard or her meat for dinner isn't done the right way, she is counseled by a priest (played, in what is now a bit of mind-blowing casting, by Dylan Baker) to get more in-touch with the elements. What she gets in touch with is her break-up with Lee, during which she fled into Central Park at night and then turned on him for sleeping with her best friend. Then she finds out there were other women, as well. Branagh's Lee stammers out bits and pieces of explanations and justifications, while Davis -- for the third time in an Allen movie -- unleashes vicious outbursts of fury, spitting curses at him as if they were chewed bullets.

It seems that Lee, who has turned 40 and has been married to the same woman for many years, feels that he has been "ladling his life out, by the spoonful" and wants the chance now to see what it would be like to be with, for instance, that "sleazy blonde" whom his high-school chum got hitched up to. That opportunity first comes in the form of a young, beautiful girl (Charleze Theron) whom Lee first spots modeling lingerie on a fashion show runway, her legs pumping as they carry her body forward with determination, as if her engine were perfectly firing on all points. After introductions, she drapes herself around Lee and informs him that she is "polymorphously perverse" -- every part of her body is capable of giving her an orgasm. The nebbish is in heaven. What happens next turns out humorously, but then Lee is shown attaching himself to another young, beautiful woman. And then another. It's as if he doesn't realize that the "sleazy blonde" he covets is a trophy wife, an arrangement, not some sort of salvation.

The film ostensibly states that it is supposed to be about how society chooses the people that it wants as its celebrities, and what the celebrities in turn say about society itself. But what the picture's really about is what all of Allen's films for the last several years -- with the exception of Manhattan Murder Mystery, a diversion made during his fractious off-screen crises -- have been about: female rage, and late life crisis.

At first, watching Kenneth Branagh replicating the nattering, conflicted, desperately stricken style of Allen's gestures and speech is the weirdest thing, but it's a performance, not an impersonation, for which Branagh deserves much credit. Judy Davis, though, seems genuinely conflicted and concerned -- the woman seems to be singing around the edges after dredging up so much anger from within -- and her character is flung from one situation after another by the story. At a cosmetic surgery salon where she is about to get a makeover, she meets a TV producer, Tony (Joe Mantegna), who gives her a job and becomes romantically involved with her. In between scheduling guests on afternoon shows with themes like "teenage obesity" and skinheads-meet-Jewish rabbis, Mike pulls her into his office for lovemaking at every possible moment. Robin meets with a professional prostitute (Bebe Neuwirth) to get pointers on how she can improve her sexual skills and keep up with Mike. The scene with Neuwirth's character has a couple of moments which, admittedly, made me laugh out loud, but this was another instance where the context made many of the laughs stick in my throat, even when what was going on on-screen was funny. Does Allen realize how humiliating this must be for a middle-aged woman to feel that she must go to these lengths to hold onto a man? Allen doesn't dramatize any of this; it's as if he weren't even interested in Robin's character with that regard.

Neither, for that matter, is there much insight provided on any of the other young women who Lee gets involved with during this time. He picks up one woman (Famke Janssen, who looks smashing), but she is scarcely dramatized as a character, and seems here primarily so that the film can stage a spectacularly mistimed attempt by Lee to break up with her. He then moved on to a stage actress named Nola, with whom he has his first rendezvous with in what is supposed to be a romantic place with romantic musical accompaniment on the soundtrack. But Nola turns up in the form of Winona Ryder, with bedraggled black hair, dark and almost sunken eyes, and a cold, hard stare. Ryder's appearance in the film The Age of Innocence is one of the most radiant depictions of womanhood seen in any recent film -- the moment when the camera alights on her, at a formal ball, and she suddenly turns and bursts into a smile, seemed to reach out from the screen and touch you. Ryder has been completely deglamorized in this picture. She seems murky, common, even coarse; the latter two aspects would seem to be the only reasons Lee would respond to her.

Allen's last three films have all had women characters in them who have been common as women, in a sexual manner, or both -- Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway (although Tilly's comedic talent took the edge off her character and made her appealing), Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, and Hazell Goodman in Deconstructing Harry. Tilly and Sorvino's characters were presented as squeaky-voiced, fluffy-headed creatures; Goodman's came across as stronger, but also much more unsophisticated, and the film had her accompany Allen's character, as he took a Wild Strawberries-type journey into the countryside, to an academic event, still dressed as if she were going to work on the street corner. This is the same artist who gave us Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. Men turn to prostitutes when they want sex without commitment; it can also be seen as a way for men to act-out a fear of commitment. Allen's current presentation of women in a contemptible light seems, on second thought, to be his fear of women, and setting this film in the entertainment medium not only gives the character of Lee the chance to meet a lot of young women but also gives Allen the chance to comments on how he sees the women who work there as actresses or models as being pretty and vacant and unschooled and unknowable.

About 50 minutes into the film, Lee has a walloping encounter with a spoiled, immature little beast of an actor named Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is first seen beating up on his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) for some petty offense and trashing his hotel room at the same time. He is hauled off the premises by the police, but not only does he manage to finesse his way out of an arrest, while teenyboppers squeal and hop about on the sidewalk, but his girlfriend throws on a coat and hurries after him. He goes directly into a waiting limo with his girlfriend, a DiCaprio-esque "posse", and Lee, and they all end up in Atlantic City, where, after some gambling, they finally come to earth in a hotel room with some girls, and Lee, looking sideswiped, reluctantly finds himself in bed with a young female who says she writes, too, "like Chekhov". Lee has been trying to talk to Brandon about appearing in a tripish script Lee has written, and Brandon keeps acting non-committal; the young actor is only interested in whatever hijinks he has gotten himself into at the moment. The sequence plays surprisingly well, and DiCaprio performs with genuine verve, but the only reason it's in the picture is to provide Lee's character with an excuse to drop everything and get on to something more "serious", like finishing a novel he's been trying to write.

Why has Woody Allen made this picture? Photographed in alternately creamy and eggshell-smooth black-and-white by the great Sven Nykvist, it ends up having nothing of any import to say about our current celebrity culture, or about celebrities themselves. Instead, it is more about the concerns and preoccupations of Allen as an artist and, daresay, as a person: he can't seem to get rid of them, and he can't seem to move beyond them. He still has his sense of humor, and the ability to surprise us with a particularly good comic moment or bit. But in many other ways he seems to be getting a bit lost, himself. The film's distressing not just in its treatment of some of its characters and situations, but also in seeing a fine comedic talent and filmmaker like Allen wrestling with a quandary, one that could ultimately lead him into a dead-end. At the end of this film, he seems to see us all going down on the same ship. And he's going down with us.


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