Celebrity (1998)

Shot in black-and-white, Woody Allen’s “Celebrity” is a pretentiously shallow and amorphous serio-comedy about the nature of fame.

World-premiering at the 1998 Venice Film Fest, “Celebrity” also served as opening night of the New York Film Fest.

This time around, Allen cast as his alter ego British actor (and director) Kenneth Branagh (essaying American accent) as an aggressive, womanizing journalist named Lee Simon.

Early on, Lee pursues (and then, incredibly soon, beds) the sexy actress Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith), subject of his current story. Lee is separated from his wife Robin (Judy Davis), a schoolteacher, and both are trying to build new lives for themselves.

Typecast, Davis is neurotic and insecure, until she meets TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna).  Even so, concerned about her sexual inadequacies, Robin recruits a prostitute (stage actress Bebe Neuwirth) to instruct her on oral sex, which might be Allen’s way of shocking us (or to connect with younger viewers).

Dominated by women, the tale then introduces another alluring femme, a blond supermodel played by Charlize Theron.  Unlike the other women in Lee’s life, she teases him and then drops him.

A parallel story details Lee’s relationship with book editor Bonnie (Famke Janssen), who’s about to move into his place. However, he suddenly becomes smitten with a very young waitress-actress Nola (Winona Ryder), which makes his life complicated.

Not neglecting his professional life, we see Lee trying to sell his screenplay, which takes him to the Stanhope Hotel, where he witnesses a young arrives movie star brat Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio) fighting with his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), trashing his hotel room, and insulting hotel staffers. (This subplot probably borrows from the reports about Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe’s public behavior). For no apparent reason, Lee joins Darrow and his entourage as head off to Atlantic City.

No doubt, Allen is influenced by Fellini and his masterpiece, “La Dolce Vita,” but the tale is endlessly swirling, lacking focus, and failing to make much thematic or dramatic impact.

Allen must have been in a dark mood, for the picture is chilly and detached—truly a downer—which is fine, if it only had interesting thing to say about our media-saturated, celebrity-driven world. 

The only visual pleasure comes from Sven Nykvist’s sharp cinematography of quintessentially New York locations.

It would be interesting to play this picture next to Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan,” one of his best pictures, which is also shot in black-and-white.

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