(US 1998)

Hank Azaria, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron

Director: Woody Allen

Writing credits: Woody Allen

Miramax * 113 minutes

Woody Allen's CELEBRITY asks the question: How many well-known actors can you talk into doing your movie, and of these, how many terrific performances will it take to offset a fundamentally lousy movie? The answer? More than three.

I had thought, after BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994), that Woody Allen has reached the point in his career where he realized that his films are far better when he stays behind the camera. In that terrific film, John Cusack handled the Woody Allen character beautifully by giving it his own spin. In last year's utterly vile DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, Allen again starred, and the film was ugly and tiresome. If you've ever known anyone who's been in too many years of therapy with little result, you know how thin this bit becomes after a while.

This time around, Kenneth Branagh plays the Woody Allen character - literally. Lee Simon is a magazine writer with the inevitably unfinished novel, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, who divorces his wife (the incomparable Judy Davis) because he feels restless, then finds out that being alone isn't all it's cracked up to be.

For two hours, Simon seeks to absorb some of the magic of celebrity as he pitches his screenplay at a succession of celebrities, including Melanie Griffith (looking like she's seen Ivana Trump's plastic surgeon) as actress/legend Nicole Oliver and Leonardo DiCaprio (in an eerily prophetic portrayal shot BEFORE he became the hottest star in the universe) as Hollywood bad-boy actor Brandon Darrow. In a scene clearly derived from Johnny Depp's hotel trashing incidents, he beats up his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), in a disturbing and ugly scene that may answer once and for all the eternal question "What if Jack Dawson had lived?" After trashing their hotel room, he then invites Lee, who is writing a story about him and pitching a script, to a night of cocaine-and-sex partying in Atlantic City. It's a hilarious, if nasty, portrayal of spoiled Hollywood brats, and the only bit in the film with any energy involving something other than neurotic anxiety. Hate DiCaprio if you must, but hate him for the right reason: because no kid that young has any business making his craft look so damn easy.

At the same time, Lee is also trying and failing at connecting with a variety of women (Famke Janssen as Lee's editor; Charlize Theron, looking inhumanly stunning as a supermodel; and Winona Ryder, looking like an anorexic cokehead with breast implants. At the same time, his ex-wife (who starts out in danger of being yet another Woody Allen harpy in the Mia Farrow In Later Years role), meets and marries a great guy (Joe Mantegna, whose Italian family is indistinguishable from the typical Allen Jewish family) and ends up hosting her own television show.

Branagh, a huge talent in search of an Act II ever since his audacious director/star splash in HENRY V (1989), does a dead-on Allen impersonation, albeit with better hair. It's all there - the tics, the gestures, the stuttering. If Woody Allen was dead, I'd believe in channeling. For about 45 minutes, it's hilarious, but then the inherent obnoxiousness of the character begins to overshadow any appeal that Branagh might bring to the role. The incongruity of Branagh's Irish face (and he looks more like James Cagney every day) doing this fundamentally Jewish shtick makes him not just annoying, but unbelievable. Sentences like "From you I'd be willing to catch terminal cancer" has the sort of "creeping Yiddish" structure that sound completely incongruous coming out of an Irish guy. Meanwhile, Judy Davis does neurotic-but-tough like no one else in the business. Why Woody Allen makes her look so horrible is anyone's guess, but she is terrific, even though she, too, sounds like Woody Allen.

While it's fun playing "watch for cameos" (including Isaac Mizrahi, Victoria's Secret model Frederique, and Hank Azaria), the film overall is a muddle that ultimately says nothing about celebrity and less about people in general. It's slightly less mean-spirited than DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, but if powerhouses like Branagh, Davis, and DiCaprio can't save your film, it's time to take Soon-Yi and go someplace far away. I hear Saturn is lovely this time of year.

- Jill Cozzi


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