Friday, November 19, 2010

Celebrity (1998)

I got the 3 esses: self-indulgent, sophomoric, sollipsistic...

Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis star in Woody Allen's film about the divergent paths that a couples' lives take after their divorce, with Branagh's failed novelist and aspiring screenwriter becoming a prospective starfucker who is as obsessed with the allure and power of the celebrities he interviews as he is repulsed by the empty, vacuous nature of celebrity, and Davis' school teacher a nervous wreck who falls in love with a TV producer (Joe Mantegna). As the story progresses, the two go on very different journeys as Branagh falls into a series of relationships with very attractive, very young women (including Famke Janssen and Winona Ryder) that he, in one way or another, fucks up, and Davis finds love and a new career.

Despite an astoundingly good cast which includes, alongside those mentioned, small roles for such luminaries as Charlize Theron, Dylan Baker, J.K. Simmons, Alison Janney, Hank Azaria, Sam Rockwell and Greg Mottola (director of Superbad and Adventureland), as well as a really spectacular but all too brief appearance by Leonardo DiCaprio as a coked-up hot young actor, the film just doesn't hold together. It feels more like a variety show in which a revolving door of famous faces appears in whatever half-baked scene Allen has managed to throw together, only to leave soon after and leave us with the hollow, bland facsimiles of people that are Lee and Robin Simon.

The film lacks any insight into celebrity culture beside the most superficial observations. It wants to be caustic but it comes off as just unpleasant, an idea that isn't helped by Allen's script, which half-heartedly takes aim at young starlets, pretentious directors (although in that instance there is a glimmer of self-mockery on his part), film critics and anyone else who happens to have pissed Allen off in the week or so that he cranked out the screenplay. It plays like the film equivalent of an old coot writing a letter to the editor of his local paper, except not as entertaining. The story and themes feel like remnants of other, better films that he decided to heap together and call a new work, but the result feels crushingly stale.

Once Allen realised that he was getting a bit too old to star as the romantic lead in his own films, he started hiring younger actors to play his surrogates. The best of these were able to take his characters and his words and bend them to fit their own style. Just look at Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown, in which he takes Allen's dialogue and makes it feel wholly new. Here, Kenneth Branagh probably represents the absolute worst in Woody Allen impersonators. He badly copies his mannerisms but never conveys any depth or emotion beyond "I am an actor reading out lines written by Woody Allen."

The one redeeming aspect of his character is that he is so pitiful, so wholly without charm or wit or grace or sympathy, that it somewhat distracts from the women in film, who are written either as shrieking harpies or barely sentient sex dolls. Without such a thoroughly unpleasant male to contrast these characters with, the film would feel deeply, deeply misogynistic. As it is, it just comes off as a dull and dour romp in self-loathing. Just as Branagh comes off as little more than a poor Woody Allen impersonator, the film plays out as little more than a poor imitation of a Woody Allen film.