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Non-Review Review: Celebrity

As I was watching Celebrity, one of Woody Allen’s mid-nineties efforts, two things ran through my head. The first was that the movie was clearly intended to explain why the director had given up on his life in America and moved overseas (sparking his creative rebirth with films like Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona). The second, and much more pressing, was the observation that it’s not really fair to write a character with yourself in mind and then expect Kenneth Branagh to step in and play that avatar as you. Not to diminish Branagh’s Woody Allen impression (it’s much better than one might expect), but it tends to draw attention away from the rest of the film.

Woody clearly thinks this Hollywood malarkey is bananas...

In many ways, Celebrity feels very much like Allen’s more recent You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger. Both films take the divorce of two characters as a starting point, amble around while offering random vignettes and observations about modern culture, draw in psychics and don’t really close with a particularly satisfying observation. In many ways, there’s only the locations which set the two films apart – Celebrity being set in Los Angeles and You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger set in London. Ah well, I suppose there are worse writer/directors for Woody Allen to emulate than Woody Allen.

Kenneth Branagh plays Lee Simon, one half of the divorcing couple, and very much written in the style of Woody himself. Lee comes out with such stuttering remarks as “it occurs to me…” and frequently trips over his words in such a way that it’s hard not to imagine Allen himself in the role. Indeed, Branagh does much better than one might expect from a classically trained Shakespearean actor in the role. He even affects a very charming version of Woody’s voice as he seems to get stuck like a broken record on the word “I” almost incessantly. However, this is the movie’s key strength, but also its fatal weakness.

A host of cameos to (Di)Cap(rio) it all off...

It’s fascinating to watch his performance, even though there’s very little depth to it. There’s a scene late in the movie where Simon is introduced to a young comedian (“the next Robin Williams”) who does a great Jack Nicholson impersonation. However, despite the fact the impersonation is solid gold, he doesn’t say anything particularly funny with it. Much like Branagh’s impersonation of Woody is technically quite strong, it seems like window dressing, designed to distract us from what’s going on.

Lee Simon isn’t an especially deep character. Really, he’s extraordinarily shallow. His sole personality trait is that he is a horrible individual, with an uncanny ability to attract beautiful and intelligent women who really should know better, and then screw them over. He’s a writer having a mid-life crisis – and it’s hard to have sympathy for anybody as selfish as Simon having a mid-life crisis when he’s sleeping with actresses played by Melanie Griffith and (almost) models played by Charleze Theron. He just seems like a bit of a boring douche, to be entirely honest. It’s one thing to base a movie around an interesting and unlikable character, but a dull and unlikable character just weighs a film down.

Strange bedfellows...

His ex-wife Robin, on the other hand, does a bit better. Played by Judy Davis, she has a run of good luck and things seem to work out for her. However, there’s precious little drama in this until the last moment, which is a strange little detour right out of every stereotypical romantic comedy you’ve ever seen – and, to be honest, I expect more of Allen. On the other hand, her storyline seems to afford Allen the opportunity to cast some pretty vicious and cynical stones at Hollywood’s fame machine – we follow Robin through a spiritual retreat gripped by celebrity fever when a televangelist arrives, a plastic surgeon’s office, behind the scenes at a Jerry-Springer-style show and so on.

Lee similarly transitions through similarly cynical situations. He’s writing a profile piece on a Hollywood celebrity, going out with a hyper-sexualised model cruising various stereotypical Hollywood haunts, gets swept up in the entourage of a young and out-of-control teen star. None of these are particularly insightful criticisms of Hollywood, nor are they especially new. Indeed, it feels like Allen is venting just a little bit, releasing a significant amount of bile he has built up towards the entertainment industry. Some sections work better than others (the section where Lee gets caught up in the path of a “bad boy” teen icon played by Leonardo DiCaprio, or Robin’s work on an afternoon chatshow), but there’s no real cohesion and the two lead roles aren’t written in such a way as to carry the film through this selection of scenes.

Allen won't dance to Hollywood's tune...

As one might expect from Allan, the movie features an all-star cast. Some (Joe Mantegna) are cleverly used, while some (Hank Azaria) are wasted. Actors like Alison Janney, J.K. Simmons and Dylan Baker show up in small supporting roles, as – it seems – does the majority of the cast of The Sopranos. Aida Torturro, Tony Sirico and Frank Pellegrino pop up, among others.

Celebrity isn’t vintage Allen. it isn’t even close. It does offer a few interesting swipes at the Hollywood machine, and perhaps illustrates why Woody has been working mainly in Europe for the past decade, but it can’t help but seem a little disappointing from a writer and director who is capable of so much more.

2 Responses

  1. I want to punch this movie in the face. It’s like, I can stand Woody Allen doing Woody Allen, but on anyone else, it’s a whole new brand of obnoxious.

    • And surreal. I think that it just made it difficult to watch. It’s be like Kenneth Branagh doing a film in the style of Christopher Walken. It feels like a novelty ratehr than a movie.

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