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With: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron, Hank Azaria, Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen, Michael Lerner, Bebe Neuwirth, Andre Gregory, Gretchen Mol, Dylan Baker, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Debra Messing
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 114
Date: 09/07/1998

Celebrity (1998)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fame Whores

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With Celebrity, Woody Allen has continued in that nasty, dark, vein he suddenly struck last year with Deconstructing Harry. I think Celebrity is a more accomplished movie, less cluttered and narcissistic, but dark, nonethess. Two years ago, I walked out of Everyone Says I Love You feeling great. Those days are over.

First, let me say this. Anyone who is counting on seeing Celebrity because of Leonardo DiCaprio's presence -- and because they loved the tossle-haired cherub in Titanic -- be forewarned. DiCaprio only appears briefly for a five or six-minute whirlwind sequence of pure celebrity hysteria. In those minutes, DiCaprio (as Brandon Darrow, a popular actor) beats up his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), nearly gets arrested, goes to a boxing match, snorts some coke, plays some craps, and participates in an orgy. One has to wonder who Woody had in mind when he wrote this part. DiCaprio plays it with such abandon that you can't help wondering how real it might be.

All of Celebrity plays like that. The movie is filmed in black-and-white, but it's a far cry from his love poems Manhattan (1979) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984). Celebrity is smaller, more cramped. Almost every shot is an interior. And like Deconstucting Harry, in which Woody played a messed-up writer, we are constantly asking ourselves, how much is real. Because it feels real. And in a way, that makes the subject matter slightly depressing.

The movie is called Celebrity because that's the world in which it takes place, but Celebrity is also about Woody's age-old theme, finding love. Lee (Kenneth Branagh) and Robin (Judy Davis) are the movie's main characters. They play "the Woody Allen character" that Woody usually plays and that John Cusack played in Bullets Over Broadway (1994). What makes this different is that there are two now. Male and female. Davis, whom many consider to be the best actress working today, seems to have captured Woody's admiration. This is her fourth movie with him, and she always brings her special brand of ferocious fidgiting to his movies. There is a scene in which Robin gets lessons in oral sex from a hooker in order to heighten her sex with her new lover (Joe Mantegna). Davis must "practice" with a banana. This may have been degrading (like Julia Louis-Dreyfuss' sex scene in Deconstructing Harry) but Davis brings the scene the charm it needs to get by. Branagh, on the other hand, does a Woody impersonation, which sometimes works, and other times doesn't (as when Lee spends an evening out with a sexy supermodel, he stutters so much you just want to punch him) . Branagh can be an extraordinary actor when he receives the proper restraint. Perhaps Woody was too close to the character to reel Branagh in from time to time.

Anyway, the movie follows Lee and Robin as they look for love following their divorce. Robin meets Tony (Joe Mantegna), and they hit it off. Despite her fears, her life gets better and better, as he makes her the host of a popular TV interview show. Lee goes through a series of girls, as he swings back and forth from writing a screenplay to finishing a novel. He has a brief fling with a movie star (Melanie Griffith), and eventually finds a woman, Bonnie, (Famke Janssen) that he gets along with, and she with him. She even helps him finish his novel. But he breaks it off for an exciting younger girl, an actress, (played by Winona Ryder), whom he is convinced is his real true love.

Celebrity opens with the familiar white titles over black, and the familiar scratchy old record, this time, "You Ougtta Be in Pictures." We relax. Then we hear the loud strains of Beethoven's 5th, over skywriting; the word "HELP". People in New York City look up and wonder, but it turns out to be just a movie shoot. The movie ends when Lee and Robin find themselves at the premiere of that movie, and Branagh's face as he reads the word "HELP" on the big screen. It's quite an ending. One-half of Woody's persona finds what she is looking for, the other is in despair (not even a free movie can comfort him). I think that's closer to truth than Todd Solondz' Happiness comes. Both films are hard to take, but I prefer Celebrity because I like to see Woody continue to mature as an artist well past anything I could have ever anticipated.

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