Celebrity (1998) dir. Woody Allen
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Winona Ryder, Melanie Griffth, Leonardo Di Caprio, Judy Davis
You may remember the great hype “Celebrity” received, buoyed by the superstrata stardom of post-Titanic Leonardo Di Caprio. He was top billed in the film’s lead up, only to disappoint the fans with a mere 10mins of screen time. The disappointment with "Celebrity" is more deeply rooted than Di Caprio mis-marketed appearance though. In fact, Leo has the best scenes in the film. No, the problem lies with Mr. Allen himself who lazily places Kenneth Branagh in a role clearly intended for himself, but doesn't allow the actor to take the film to the level his talent is capable of.
Kenneth Branagh is the lead, playing Lee Simon, a hack journalist living through a midlife crisis. Lee feels the best part of his life has passed him by, “fucking blink and you're 40, you blink again and you can see movies at half price on a senior citizen's pass.” Deep down though, he wants to sleep with more women (a common Woody Allen dilemma). And so Simon separates from his wife Robin (Judy Simon) and begins to date a number of hot women whom he meets via his celebrity-crossing job.
There’s Melanie Griffith, a married actress who “depends on the kindness of strangers” and who’s only off limits 'below the waste - everything above is fair game'. There’s Charlize Theron, a supermodel, who is attracted to Lee’s Aston Martin more than him. There’s Winona Ryder, a movie extra, but someone who has remained close to his heart despite refusing to be monogamous. Leonardo Di Caprio, despite the screentime, makes a memorable cameo as an actor as big as himself who abuses his girlfriend (note for Adrian Grenier who plays a member of his “Entourage”)
As mentioned Kenneth Branagh acts like Woody Allen playing, well, Woody Allen. Arguably Allen’s presence in his own films, especially as the sole protagonist, is a cumbersome weight to carry. Like Jerry Seinfeld, Woody doesn’t play a character, he plays himself. I welcome the non-Woody Allen acted films because it gives us a chance to watch the talented writer/director unencumbered by his non-abilities as an actor. And so, to be forced to watch Branagh act like Allen is just a waste of talent and it taints the entire film.
“Celebrity” is shot in beautiful black and white by Sven Nykist. And as Lee roams the nighttime streets encountering the weird and wonderful supporting characters along the way we’re reminded of Marcello’s journey in “La Dolce Vita”. Something Allen should get more credit for is his skills as a visual stylist. Whether it's influenced by a European classic or a completely new concept he's also supremely skilled at changing his visual style to suit his material.
But at best there’s only about four stand alone scenes of interest – Di Caprio’s star-powered meltdown, Charlize Theron’s teasing, an awkward break-up scene in Famke Jansson’s apartment in front of the moving help and a demonstration of oral sex by Bebe Neuworth. But Allen’s attempt to disguise his personal neuroses under our noses in the form of Kenneth Branagh is a tired and lazy characterization and reduces much of the comic potential in every other scene.
By the nature of it’s title, the film purports to be about celebrity. Allen never unifies his story with a theme other than Lee’s personal crisis. But of course, it’s Allen’s crisis, not Lee’s, which is just excruciating.
“Celebrity” has been repackaged along with six other Allen films from the 90’s by Alliance Films.