There are some Woody Allen movies that seem of their time and others that seem somehow timeless, perhaps because Woody has never been particularly interested in contemporary culture. With Celebrity however he does seem to take an interest, and the result for me rewatching it this week is that it seems very 1998.
The film is superficially, appropriately, about celebrity. We are introduced to this world through the eyes of an unsuccessful writer who finds himself churning out profile pieces and hustling a screenplay in a rarified world of models and actresses. Sure, he’s surrounded by endless beauty and offers to jump into bed (most of which he ruins) but he’s not happy and certainly not fulfilled. His ex-wife, however, unexpectedly does find contentment in the world of celebrity, leaving behind her nervous, prim persona and job as a teacher to become a famous and beloved entertainment reporter.
Although Celebrity is meant to be about celebrity, watching it this time around its main attraction was the characters and the story and the structure. How the twin paths of the two protagonists are introduced, then developed, then crossed over and finally dovetailed was much more interesting than Woody’s commentary on life in front of the paparazzi. I tend to think he does satire or social commentary best when it’s about his own milieu. Drug-fuelled orgies and back stage at lingerie catwalks doesn’t seem like Woody’s world somehow, so the insights and characterisations seem a bit unfounded.
Speaking of pop culture, and Woody’s place in it, this is the first film where it seemed as if he was finally willing to recognise his own place in that world. Most reviews commented that Kenneth Branagh’s performance in the lead role was an impersonation of Woody Allen, the black and white cinematography is reminiscent of Manhattan, there’s a scene at Elaine’s bar, and even some one-liners we’ve heard before, such as when Charlize Theron tells us she is ‘polymorphously perverse’. Unlike many other Woody movies though, this one feels too long to sustain its light touch. Or perhaps it’s not too serious enough to warrant its running time. Either way I was surprised when it ran past the traditional 90 minute mark.
But during the 90s, even when his films seemed woolly or recycled or flimsy, Woody could summon a top-drawer cast, and Celebrity is no exception. Apart from Branagh and Theron, there’s Judy Davis in a familiar role of a spurned wife, although at least here her pent-up rage finds some release, calm and a happy ending. The rest of the cast can really only be called supporting players, as they appear in one or two scenes in what is (like Deconstructing Harry) an episodic structure. But even this supporting bench is stacked with Leonardo DiCaprio, Winona Ryder, Melanie Griffith, Joe Mantegna… and then in the truly supporting, one-scene roles, the level of character actors is equally impressive: Hank Azaria, Michael Lerner, Bebe Neuwirth… the list really does go on.
Despite the cast, however, ultimately Celebrity feels like B-grade Woody. For the most part, it feels like we’ve seen it before, and better before. Maybe the journeys of Branagh and Davis’s characters would have been more meaningful if the attempt at social commentary wasn’t so heavy handed. Still, it does have its entertaining moments, such as the pay-off to the scene in which Charlize Theron seduces Kenneth Branagh, or Bebe Neuwirth’s instruction on the art of oral sex using fruit. There are many scenes involving two couples sitting around a restaurant table having cross conversations in Woody Allen’s films, but the one in this film is my favourite, as we read the unsaid dialogue between Branagh and Ryder.
But, overall, this week’s Woody was a bit B-grade. Entertaining but not especially deep and meaningful. Like any celebrity story really.
Next week: Sweet and Lowdown