Film review of “Celebrity”

(My Woody Allen “festival” continues with this film review of “Celebrity”, which originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 14 May 1999.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen has become something of an institution:  each year since 1971 he has written and directed a film.  Most (but not all) are set in New York City, feature Allen himself in a lead role and are about the mysteries of love and romance.

Woody Allen’s film “Celebrity” is a film about, well, celebrities.  And love, romance, commitment (and the fear of it), unfaithfulness, finding your intended love partner and “making it”.  Along the way, he gives us lots of subtle and not-so-subtle digs at the nature of fame, actors, supermodels, film producers and even film critics (!).  Some may remember that Allen has trod this territory before:  in 1980, he made “Stardust Memories”, a cynical, biting and satirical film about the nature of fame and its discontents.  Coming just after “Annie Hall” (generally acknowledged to be his greatest film, winning a number of Academy Awards), “Stardust” was misunderstood by both critics and fans; it was less than generous towards either group.

“Celebrity” contains many of the same themes, but in a much gentler presentation.  Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh, sporting a great New York accent) is a failed novelist, travel and entertainment writer who drives a 1967 Astin-Martin.  This is the “Woody Allen” role – the self-effacing, serially unfaithful, wordy, hyper-conscious creative spirit with the eye for the women.  With Branagh – a much more solid persona than Allen – in the character, the whole film takes on a different feel from the previous year’s “Deconstructing Harry” (1998), although an unsurprising number of themes reoccur.

Lee has recently split from his wife Robin (Judy Davis, in yet again another almost perfectly acted role), a hyper-kinetic, emotionally inhibited and neurotic English teacher who systematically undermines most successful things she is given in life.  When in the office of plastic surgeon Dr. Lupus (a hilarious cameo by Michael Lerner) Robin meets television producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), who is smitten with her and enables her to reinvent her life “to become what I have also hated but now love”.

Meanwhile, Lee is letting his hormones lead him:  lusting after young actress Nola (Winona Ryder), a gorgeous oversexed supermodel (Charlize Theron) and book editor Bonnie (Famke Janssen).  He too wants his slice of fame, trying to pitch his screenplay to hotel-trashing brat-packer young actor Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio, obviously enjoying himself here).  Along the way, we are treated to wonderful cameos by Melanie Griffith as a trashy movie star, “super” designer Isaac Mizrahi as a fashion designer, famed New York developer Donald Trump as himself, and New York writers Erica Jong and Bruce Jay Friedman as book party guests at the famous Elaine’s restaurant.

“Celebrity” is undeniably funny, with some truly hilarious and memorable scenes (Lee’s high school reunion is one favourite), and sly New York arty in-jokes crowded throughout.  Somehow, the emotional centre of this film – the Lee/Branagh character – does not quite hold it all together.  Branagh may play a great moody Hamlet, but does not quite fit into the role of the neurotic, driven New York intellectual.   The black and white photography by famed Sven Nykvist looks good, although it is debatable whether or not it is appropriate.

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