Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
After years as the lowest of low-key personalities, Woody Allen found himself thrust into the public eye during the 1990s. Through a very bitter split with former lover - and frequent cinematic collaborator - Mia Farrow and his subsequent - and creepy - romance and marriage with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, the Woodman became tabloid fodder and the butt of many jokes.
Considering the personal nature of so many Allen films, it seemed inevitable that he’d eventually strike back through his work. 1997’s Deconstructing Harry offered the first salvo, as it showed an Allen who didn’t seem terribly enamored of women; who ever expected to hear Woody refer to females as “cunts” with such abandon?
1998’s Celebrity seems less misogynistic but not less barbed. Allen himself starred in Harry, but for Celebrity he took the same route seen in flicks like 1993’s Bullets Over Broadway and 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You: he cast another actor in the Woody role. Here we find Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), a struggling writer who churns out celebrity stories for a periodical. This doesn’t satisfy him, and he longs to return to his roots as a novelist. The terrible critical reception of an earlier work scarred him, though, so he seems reluctant to do this. Instead, he works on a screenplay, and during parts of the movie, we watch as he tries to get it made.
The film follows Lee as it does this, and we also see his bitterness over his split with ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis). She gets her own section of the story, though it’s clear Allen’s passions remain with Lee, his own alter ego. Robin has her own issues but her life picks up after an improbable encounter. A friend encourages her to get some plastic surgery from a famous doctor. While waiting for a consultation, a local TV crew comes in and the producer - charming Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) - compliments her. This starts an on-again, off-again romance and also leads to a TV career for Robin, something that occasionally brings her into contact with angry Lee.
He bops from woman to woman throughout his own quest, though his thoughts often return to Nola (Winona Ryder). They nearly got together once, but the moment passed and eventually Lee hooked up with Bonnie (Famke Janssen). That relationship becomes serious and seems successful, but just as Bonnie’s moving in with Lee, he dumps her to pursue Nola.
All while this occurs, Lee still flits from career to career. He remains lost and uncertain what to do. During some of the film’s best moments, he totally lowers himself to try to attract a hot actor named Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio) to sign onto his film. Will Lee and/or Robin eventually find any form of happiness and satisfaction?
Maybe, but that’s not my primary concern. The bigger issue relates to whether or not Celebrity is worth a look. My feelings toward Allen’s work run pretty hot and cold. Actually, they veer closer to warm and cold. I like a fair amount of his material but rarely really adore any of it. On the other hand, I openly dislike more than a couple of flicks.
Celebrity has quite a few flaws, but it falls somewhere in the middle of his repertoire. On the negative side, it seems very scattered and unfocused. Allen appears to want to take on the whole culture of celebrity, and he tosses out occasional barbs in that direction. The DiCaprio scenes do this best, as schlubby Lee gets caught up in some wild scenarios. For the first film he shot after the enormous success of 1997’s Titanic, DiCaprio seems more than willing to poke a few holes in his burgeoning mystique; as a drug-abusing, girlfriend beating jerk, it seems almost impossible for him to take on a less likable part, and he really sinks his teeth into it.
Branagh received much criticism for his Allen impersonation as Lee, but I think a lot of this was misguided. Allen often uses doppelgangers in his flicks; from Mia Farrow in Alice to John Cusack in Broadway to Ed Norton in Everyone, if Allen himself doesn’t appear in a movie, he usually has someone else fill in for him.
Admittedly, Branagh does rely a little too much on Woody-esque mannerisms, but I thought he integrated them in an acceptable manner. Norton offers the worst example of a Woody caricature. While Branagh seems a little forced at times, he provides enough depth to the role to allow us to ignore the more problematic elements. He’s not as effective as Cusack, but Branagh works fairly well.
Though not as star-packed as the overstuffed Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity follows the Allen MO for the era in that it throws a slew of famous people on screen and sees who sticks. This technique can be somewhat distracting at times, as the film becomes too much of a game of “spot the star”.
Still, despite a scattered focus and a lot of distractions, Celebrity had its moments for Woody Allen fans. I felt somewhat unenthused about the flick, and it definitely won’t qualify as the best of his repertoire. Nonetheless, the Nineties provided a lot of bad work from Allen, and Celebrity came across as a reasonably engaging semi-return to form for the director. It ain’t Annie Hall but it had its moments.