by Rob Gonsalves
In 'Celebrity,' Woody Allen's angle isn't the headaches of fame; he did that already in 'Stardust Memories,' a seething hate letter to his fans and critics. No, he's interested in the hangers-on -- the entertainment reporters, the aspiring actresses working as extras, the hoteliers who must deal with a hot young star's room-trashing tantrums. 'Celebrity' is about the tiny planets revolving around Hollywood's many suns, trying to absorb some heat. It's a cold universe nonetheless.Woody doesn't appear onscreen, but he's there in spirit and in voice: Kenneth Branagh, as the schlumpy reporter Lee Simon, has puckishly adopted Woody's trademark stammer. Allen has said that this was Branagh's idea, not his own, and that he didn't want to interfere with the performance. Bullshit: This is the director who once reshot an entire film with a new cast, and interfering with a performance you didn't intend is your job as a director. No, Allen and Branagh understood there's only one way to play Lee -- written as an insecure, immature putz, forever jabbering at women in hopes of getting them horizontal. And that way is to play him as the familiar Woody character. Branagh, by the way, does a terrific, self-deprecating job of it. Critics who've said he's annoying miss the point: Should Lee, a sensitive-insensitive jerk, not be annoying?
"Woody takes on the cult of personality."
Lee weaves in and out of the Woody Allen universe, a Manhattan full of bitter women, failed artists, and tweedy people who drone on about books. All of Woody's people are smart, or at least eloquent, but stone stupid when it comes to sex and romance. That's always been the saving grace of even Woody's most rarefied dramas: These elitists, who drop casual references to Rilke and Schopenhauer, are as hopeless as the rest of us when struck by Cupid's arrow or by stirrings in the loins. Celebrity adds another reassurance: These intellectuals are also more infatuated with success and fame than they'd care to admit -- just like us popcorn-munchers.
The loosely structured plot follows Lee and his soon-to-be ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis) as they rebound from the implosion of their fifteen-year marriage. Robin tries the usual upper-middle-class balms for a broken heart (a religious retreat, a consultation with a plastic surgeon) before meeting the man of her dreams -- Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), a local-TV producer who falls hard for her. Allen gives her a romance so implausibly storybookish that she keeps waiting for the sad ending; the joke is that there isn't one, and she, too, becomes a beloved celebrity, while Lee flails around, hopping from one infatuation to the next, and trying to get big-name actors to look at his dumb screenplay about an armored-car robbery.
One of Lee's targets is Leonardo DiCaprio, as an abusive, hard-partying movie star probably modeled on what Woody has read about the exploits of Johnny Depp or Christian Slater. That Leo was cast before he himself reached the top of the world is one of the movie's deeper ironies. It would be unfair to say he's playing himself (DiCaprio has been relatively well-behaved so far); I think he's really playing what he doesn't want to become. His performance, which takes up a Warholian fifteen minutes of the film, presents celebrity excess as viewed from the outside; yet DiCaprio still manages to suggest the stress and isolation of being a star, even before he actually became one.The message of 'Celebrity' is the extremely un-American notion that anything you aspire to and work for -- fame, sex, success -- won't make you happy; you have to give up the pursuit of happiness (as Robin does) to achieve it. 'Celebrity' isn't really a satire of our obsession with fame; it's consistent with Woody Allen's tragicomic theme: that the harder we push that Sisyphean rock up the mountain, the harder it rolls down on us.
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originally posted: 01/28/07 06:40:04