Melanie Griffith, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio

Directed by Woody Allen
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November 20, 1998

Is Woody Allen over? As in stale? As in Seventies relic? As in so beset by scandals and diminishing box-office returns that he should just roll over instead of making a movie a year and feebly attempting to shore up a faltering career by hiring hip, young actors to recycle his tired jokes?

That about sums it up if you go by the septic buzz from the New York Film Festival, which presented Allen's star-studded Celebrity as its opening-night attraction in September, prior to the comedy's release this month. After twenty-seven films, Woody is taking the same heat that his alter ego took from visiting space aliens in 1980's Stardust Memories — "Tell funnier jokes." Or at least fresher ones. The word is out: Celebrity is refried comic beans that no amount of megastar seasoning — Leonardo DiCaprio playing a teen idol in full party-boy overdrive — can camouflage.

My advice? Before you hang Allen with the rope of his own celebrity, see the movie. Celebrity suffers from lulls and lapses and one lulu of a casting gaffe, but this keenly observant spoof of the fame game is hardly the work of a burnout. At sixty-two, the Woodman can still mine caustic laughter from the darkest corners of his psyche. In Celebrity, he cracks his ringmaster's whip on a circus of rude, cathartic fun.

Allen's absence in front of the camera may be due to recent audience revulsion at seeing an old codger screen-kiss the tender flesh of Julia Roberts, Mira Sorvino and Elisabeth Shue. So the Woody Allen role in Celebrity, that of celebrity-interviewer Lee Simon, goes to Kenneth Branagh, 37, the Belfast-born master thespian. Branagh, whether by his choice or his director's, plays Lee like a Woody impressionist, down to the nervous gestures and the stuttering whine. Lee is bruised by a failed career as a novelist and a failed marriage to the distraught Robin (Judy Davis), a teacher. Although Lee is genuinely loved by Bonnie (Famke Janssen, subtle and appealing), an editor who encourages his artistic bent, he dumps her for Nola (Winona Ryder, never more bewitching), a struggling actress who would dump him for anyone who dangled a part. The point is, Lee should emerge as flawed but real in a world of gorgeous poseurs. Instead, Branagh's party-trick performance keeps audiences at a distance.

What saves the day is the steady march of scintillating cameos from actors who bring out the best in Allen's barbed dialogue. First up is the playfully lusty Melanie Griffith as a married movie star who refuses to let Lee get in her pants when he flirts with her during an interview but who uses Clintonesque logic to justify a blow job ("What I do above the neck is a different story"). Then there's the supermodel, played by Charlize Theron, a knockout who can toss her curves or curve a comic line with stunning dexterity. The model also teases Lee with erotic promises but flees to protect her reputation. In Allen's view, the centrifugal force of celebrity sucks up everything in its path.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lee's interview with teen idol Brandon Darrow (DiCaprio), who is slapping his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) when Lee enters the kid's freshly trashed hotel suite. "You fucking bitch," cries Brandon. No hard feelings; fame has its privileges. Brandon is soon his famous smiling self, flattering Lee about his screenplay, offering a line of blow and a place at his orgy. Lee begs off, claiming nerves about "unclothed male genitalia" — a great Woody line blundered by Branagh. No matter. DiCaprio is a live wire; he nails this hilarious sequence — sure to sour his Titanic dreamboat status — with self-parodying glee.

At other times, Allen's film — with its celebrity priests, rabbis, hookers, plastic surgeons and walk-ons from the likes of Joey Buttafuoco — merely draws easy snickers from easy targets. What makes the film distinctively witty and vital is that Allen's most telling jest isn't about celebrity at all; it's about accommodation. In the Seventies, we laughed derisively when Andy Warhol declared that everybody would be famous for fifteen minutes. Now, not only have we stopped laughing, we're seriously trying to figure out how best to exploit the time.

Look at Lee. He's tired of hearing his novel scoffed at with the three s words: sophomoric, self-indulgent, solipsistic. Why not get on the Hollywood bandwagon, where trivial spells success? His intellectually wired ex-wife, Robin (Davis has a ball in the role), has been transformed by her TV-producer lover (the excellent Joe Mantegna) into a blandly assured TV host. "I'm everything I ever hated," she tells Lee, "and I've never been happier." How long can Lee hang on to outdated ideas of integrity? At the end of the film, which might fairly be called Allen's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the prospects aren't hopeful. And to those who say that the cautionary notes ringing in Celebrity aren't relevant, consider this: Woody Allen can now be heard as the voice of a neurotic but kid-friendly insect in Antz, an animated feature that is, hands-down, the biggest box-office success of his career.

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