MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Kenneth Branagh (Lee Simon), Judy Davis (Robin Simon), Joe Mantegna (Tony Gardella), Famke Janssen (Bonnie), Leonardo DiCaprio (Brandon Darrow), Hank Azaria (David), Charlize Theron (Supermodel), Melanie Griffith (Nicole Oliver), Michael Lerner (Dr. Lupus), Bebe Neuwirth (Hooker), Winona Ryder (Nola)
In Woody Allen's "Celebrity," the center of modern cultural decay is filled with the famous and infamous, and they come in all shapes and sizes: actors and actresses, producers, directors, plastic surgeons, weathermen, supermodels, critics, hostages, authors, agents, and even the celebrated dregs of society like hookers, skinheads, and Ku Klux Klan members who are watched daily on talk shows by millions. In Allen's film, they're all part of the same world, and the only thing more pathetic than the self-absorbed celebrities are the schlubs who feed off them and envy them.
That the most wretched character is a celebrity journalist is no surprise. Considering the beating Allen has taken in the media over the years, especially in the tabloids, who could imagine him missing the chance to put his own spin on the situation? Interestingly enough, the journalist character, Lee Simon, is played by Kenneth Branagh, although it is certainly the role Allen would have taken had he appeared in the film. It's almost as if he didn't even want to fill the shoes of such a loathsome character, even though he showed last year in "Deconstructing Harry" that is not above playing a slimeball.
The film makes clear that Lee is a bottom-feeder, both detestable and oddly sympathetic. He finds himself in numerous situations with celebrities of all sorts, none of whom he is able to deal with in any sane manner because they either look down on him, use him, or simply ignore him. He makes his living telling their stories in magazines, yet he never gets their true essence because he cannot fully work himself into their world. He is always an outsider, and numerous scenes show crowded rooms with him slinking along the edges, always wanting to be in the middle, but never being able to penetrate the circle.
Branagh brings just enough Woodyisms to his character to remind us of Allen, but not so much that it feels like an imitation. Lee stammers and stutters, he is filled with self-doubt, and he has a real penchant for making all the wrong decisions in life. Like so many of Allen's characters from previous films (especially his character in "Manhattan"), Lee's inability to be satisfied with what he has constantly undermines his own happiness. He always wants something else, and the something else usually turns out to be worse than what he has to begin with.
In a flashback scene, we see Lee dump his wife of 16 years, Robin (Judy Davis), to find out what the "single life" is like. He then stumbles through some sexual misadventures, the most humorous of which follows him over the course of an evening while he tries to seduce a polymorphously perverse supermodel (meaning she is literally orgasmic when touched on any part of her body), but ends up wrecking his car. Later, he finds himself involved with an attractive, intelligent book editor (Famke Janssen) who not only loves him, but could further his career, and yet he throws her away on a silly, immature actress-wannabe played by Winona Ryder.
One of the clearly recognizable Allen themes that comes through in "Celebrity" is the notion of "selling out." Lack of true creativity is one of the hallmarks of the celebrities depicted here, and Allen uses past masters of the arts to compare with what passes for art today. For instance, a famous Beverly Hills plastic surgeon is referred to as "the Michaelangelo of Manhattan." In another scene, a sleazy groupie tells Lee that she has written a screenplay and asks, "You know Chekhov? I write like him."
Lee is the sort who could probably be something, but he is constantly stymied and cut off by the Hollywood system. Perhaps Allen is suggesting that Lee has become this bottom-feeder celeb journalist because the system has forced him into that position. There is constant talk of Lee always wanting to write a novel, but the two he already published were so ravaged by the critics that he is forever infected with self-doubt. In one scene at a party, he meets one of the critics who, in astonishing fashion, proceeds to rail on the book again to Lee's face.
Lee tries to meet the system half-way by writing a screenplay, one described as "an armored car robbery story" that sounds like something Quentin Tarantino might have penned. When he tries to get a big star named Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio) attached to the project, he finds his efforts to be in vain. Brandon is too busy trashing his hotel room, beating his girlfriend, and gambling in Vegas to be bothered with it. He throws out a few suggestions about how Lee could "improve" the screenplay, but his words hold no weight because they have no conviction.
"Celebrity" does have a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), a TV producer who begins dating Robin. Tony is as decent a man as can be found in Los Angeles, and Robin almost ruins their relationship because he seems too perfect. "I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop," she tells him, indicating that life has taught her that everything has flaws somewhere.
"Celebrity" marks something of a change for Allen. After the whimsical "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996) and the black comedy "Deconstructing Harry" (1997), "Celebrity" is Allen's return to a starker, more dramatic form not seen for several years. The film does have it scathingly humorous moments, but it is more of a drama than a comedy.
Combining Allen's unobtrusive mis-en-scene with the low-contrast black and white photography by Ingmar Bergman's long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist, "Celebrity" has a bare-bones look that is an ironic contrast to the glittery, full-color life led by its famous characters. Unfortunately, "Celebrity" is not one of Allen's sharpest films, and there are several sequences, including one that takes place at a bizarre Catholic retreat and another involving lessons on oral sex with bananas, that feel either downright misplaced (in the case of the former) or tastelessly unfunny (in the case of the latter).
Nevertheless, "Celebrity" is still an enjoyable movie that is exceptionally timely because, in the age of John Wayne Bobbitt, Monica Lewinsky, and Dennis Rodman, it asks us to take another look at our celebrity-obsessed society and ask, "Why are these people famous?" As one character puts it all too well: "You can tell a lot about a society by the people it chooses to celebrate."
©1998 James Kendrick