Holed up with his Sidney Bechet records, old flannel shirts and dog-eared copy of War and Peace, Woody Allen has made a second career of shunning fad, fashion and fame -- and of ostensibly keeping to himself in the most populous city in the United States. No nouveau-grooveau glitz or designer drugs for our Woody, no sir. For the deep thinker and the hermetically sealed observer of la comedie humaine, there's no time like the past, no movies like the black-and-white classics, and no truths like the eternal ones.
In Celebrity, the auteur from Brooklyn peers down from his high perch upon the grovelings and grime of a brave new world divided, roughly speaking, between those who beg for autographs and those who sign them. The pain of envy and the bitch goddess of fame -- these are Allen's outsized subjects this time around, and he addresses them, with his usual bleak resolve, in some familiar settings: the art galleries and gabby cocktail parties, the TV studios and fashionable French restaurants of his beloved Manhattan. His partner in gloom is none other than cameraman Sven Nykvist, who put that cheery glow into the films of Ingmar Bergman. Thankfully, Allen hasn't lost his sense of humor -- or his capacity to satirize himself.
Celebrity can be a joyless and bitter piece of business, but it stops short of solemnity to offer a rich tangle of black jokes amid all the personal crises. Allen's trove of absurd celebrities, hastily glimpsed, includes not only the usual vain authors, leggy fashion models famous for their exercise tapes, and gargantuan basketball players (Anthony Mason plays himself), but also a TV priest (John Carter) signing autographs for the faithful at a country retreat house. There is a pop plastic surgeon named Dr. Lupus (Michael Lerner) who dispenses assorted chin-tucks and cheek-lifts while TV lights glare in his patients' faces and a commentator trills that the man's a "Renaissance sculptor."
Amid the public lust for celebrity, there's no distinction between achievement and infamy: An autograph by Charles Manson (who doesn't appear here) is just as coveted as one from Donald Trump (who does), without regard for the worthlessness of them both. As if to underscore the point, Allen invites local "celebrities" Mary Jo and Joey Buttafuoco in for a moment. When Hollywood heartthrob Brandon Darrow (who else but Leonardo DiCaprio?) beats up his girlfriend and trashes his hotel suite, the cops want his John Hancock almost as badly as a desperate writer wants him to read his unfinished screenplay. At a local TV station, renown is equally generic: A flustered talk-show booker shoves an ACLU lawyer and a Black Muslim into the same green room with three Ku Klux Klansmen. Funny stuff, and classic Allen.
Press notes for Celebrity say it features 242 speaking roles. But it's mostly about Robin and Lee Simon (Judy Davis and Kenneth Branagh), who have just divorced after 16 years of marriage and now find themselves adrift.
She's a neurotic English teacher with fluttering arms and a serious case of Catholic inhibition -- in other words, the Diane Keaton character -- and she manages a transformation that not even she can grasp.
He's a philandering, starstruck reporter suffering from a midlife crisis and bad memories of two failed novels. He tries to turn every momentary brush with a blonde or a book editor into an opportunity, often with hilarious results. But in his quest for greener pastures he's always trampling love and screwing up.
His victims include his ex-wife; an editor who loves him (Famke Janssen); a free-spirited actress (Winona Ryder); and, of course, himself. He's the kind of dope who can look into a beauty's eyes and actually say, "If the universe has any meaning, I'm looking at it."
You can't help suspecting that Lee is a composite of all the tabloid scavengers who hounded Allen during the Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn brouhaha. But the filmmaker is too self-aware (and too self-conscious) not to also turn the heat on the man in the mirror: A terrific actor and a gifted mimic, Branagh reproduces Allen's patented stammer, whine and kvetch to perfection; there are moments in Celebrity when he seems more Woody than Woody himself.
The Simons' Manhattan is populated with posers, dreamers and the occasional true heart. A drugged-up groupie fancies herself an artist: "You ever heard of Chekhov?" she asks. "I write like him." A dimwitted starlet (Melanie Griffith) says she wants to direct. The relatives of a good-guy TV producer (Joe Mantegna) beg him to snag table reservations and Knicks tickets. A Gypsy fortuneteller turns out to be no fraud at all. And in another instance of Allen's recent onset of raunchiness, a helpful call girl (Bebe Neuwirth) and struggling Robin practice oral sex using a couple of bananas. Meanwhile, up at Elaine's, the celebrity fishbowl, writers and agents and actors compete for the spotlight. Even the dead proprietor remains a star.
This is, of course, a teeming realm that Allen knows a lot better than he lets on: He's been stung by the dark side of fame; he's a fixture at Elaine's. He also knows that it's not his clarinet-playing that packs the jazz club or makes him the subject of a "music" documentary -- such as Wild Man Blues -- it's the fact that he's Woody Allen. He likely understands the perks and pitfalls of celebrity worship as well as anyone in America, and he's crammed what he knows into one untidy, hilarious and discomfiting movie, shot in melancholy black and white; it may be his best work in years. He's even anticipated his critics. Of a fictional movie director, someone remarks, "Papadakis -- one of those pretentious assholes who shoots everything in black and white!"
In some ways, Celebrity feels like a comical trot on Richard Schickel's notably un-famous 1985 book, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, which dissected the dangerous tug of unattainable glamour and fame, and the lonely desperation of the autograph hound, the status seeker, the fan. Given his back pages, though, Allen probably grasps the ironies of fame more deeply even than Schickel. Witness the image with which he begins and ends the film. Literally, it belongs to Celebrity's amorphous movie-within-a-movie, but it speaks for Lee, for Robin, and, if I don't miss my guess, for Allen himself:
We watch a single-engine airplane as it crosses over Manhattan, skywriting a single word: "Help."
Written and directed by Woody Allen. With Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, Famke Janssen, Winona Ryder and Melanie Griffith.
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