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by: Scott Renshaw

Woody Allen's detractors have had a laundry list of gripes about his films for many years now. His neurotic screen persona had grown increasingly shrill and annoying, they said; his cinematic world of white Upper-Manhattanites had grown ever more insular. As the lines between his convoluted personal life and his baldly autobiographical films grew blurrier by the year, the anti-Woody contingent began to consider him a vaguely pathetic has-been, the film-making equivalent of Frank Sinatra -- more famous in the later stages of his career for who he used to be than for who he still was.

It took watching Kenneth Branagh's grating gloss on Allen's mannerisms in CELEBRITY for me to sympathize with that side of the Great Woody Debate. Branagh plays Lee Simon, a writer who has dabbled in novels, travel pieces and screenplays before hitting his current assignment as an entertainment writer. His work brings him into contact with a number of ostensibly colorful characters, including a sexy film actress (Melanie Griffith), a supermodel (Charlize Theron) and a volatile teen heartthrob (Leonardo DiCaprio). Occasionally it even brings him into contact with his ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis), who leaves a job as an English teacher to work for her new significant other (Joe Mantegna) in television.

It's easy to see the potential in CELEBRITY for exploring the foibles of fame and the absurdity of a culture that bestows fame for all the wrong reasons. It's also easy to see that Allen intends Lee as a John Q. Star-Struck American who casts off a 16-year marriage and plunges into writing screenplays because he's convinced he's missing something the world of movies can bring him. Unfortunately, Lee is never a remotely sympathetic character, primarily because Branagh is too preoccupied with mimicking the Woodman to find anything true in the character. Judy Davis is more effective as the emotionally fragile Robin, but her character arc is only slightly more compelling. The film's two central characters are contrivances; worse, they're often annoying contrivances, twisted knots of self-doubt and self-loathing whose happiness couldn't matter less to us.

Without any emotional center, CELEBRITY becomes a series of stand-alone vignettes about the strange and self-absorbed things famous people do. Allen can still manage to pull out a few one-line zingers (including self-deprecating takes on "pretentious film-makers who shoot everything in black-and-white"), but they're few and far between in this film. Sequences that should build to a great comic payoff, like Lee's wild night with DiCaprio's bad boy actor, just seem to drag on until it's time to start the next scene. For a film-maker who has spent most of his career obsessing over beautiful people, he can't seem to come up with anything particularly clever to say about them.

The lack of invention in CELEBRITY gives you plenty of time to notice how stale Allen's act has become. The constant references to psychotherapy feel twenty years past their prime; his pokes at Catholic iconography, Nazis, unstable relationships and sexual timidity have liver spots on them by now. For every decent gag (a film producer referring to his next project, "an all-black version of 'Birth of a Nation'"), there are half a dozen that turned up in a previous Woody Allen film. CELEBRITY, a film which should have been wonderfully timely in the daytime talk show era, shows little cutting-edge satiric bite. Allen doesn't even seem to find it ironic that Robin finds her bliss by abandoning teaching for fame as a television personality. Perhaps it's even more ironic that he's showing himself to be one of those famous people so far removed from ordinary life that he doesn't know what we might find absurd, or that he himself may now be one of those people famous for all the wrong reasons.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 tin Woodmen: 4.


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