Hey, have you guys ever wanted to see Kenneth Branagh do a subtle Woody Allen impression? You have? Well, do I have a movie for you. In 1998, Woody Allen directed a little film called Celebrity, ostensibly about the highs, lows, pratfalls and successes of contemporary American celebrity. It features a small central cast, but virtually every other secondary character is played by a celebrity. Surprisingly, Woody Allen himself doesn't make an appearance, which is relatively unusual for him.
As typical for Woody Allen films, the plot is rather loose, focusing mostly on character interactions, conversations, dialogue, and mise-en-scéne, we follow the lives of Lee and Robin Simon, played by Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis, respectively. They're a divorced New York couple, each pursuing different goals, and reaching different resolutions. ...Yeah, that's pretty much it, generalized-plot-wise. Lee is a writer and journalist, conducting celebrity interviews and trying to write novels and screenplays. His ex-wife Robin used to be a schoolteacher, but suffered something of a breakdown when their marriage deteriorated. By chance, she met Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), a television producer, and they start a romantic relationship and entertainment partnership. Lee goes through a slew of lovers and girlfriends, always with one foot out the door, never quite putting as much effort or passion into his writing as he does his seemingly endless pursuit of romantic and sexual gratification and happiness (ultimately, he finds neither).
This is a good Woody Allen movie. Which I mean to say, it's pretty much the same as most Woody Allen movies. He's pretty much turned good directing into a cliché. Unique camera angles? Long takes? Smooth tracking, panning back and forth between conversationalists? Witty dialogue, complex interactions, rounded characters? Yawn! Seen it before! In addition to all of that, the film also hammers to the audience Allen's own ideas about the nature of celebrity, and presumably how he really feels about writing. It's chock-full of meta-references. The film is done in black and white, and Joe Mantegna's character refers to an in-film director as "very arty, pretentious; one of those assholes who films in black and white."
Like most other main characters, Lee Simon is a writer, and not a very successful one. He wants to write a good screenplay in order to be financially successful, and to have a blockbuster film, which is his ideal of celebrity. When that doesn't really pan out, he tries to write a novel, but he's haunted by his past failures (and also his ex-girlfriend, who throws it in the river, page by page, when he breaks up with her). I think of Woody Allen primarily as a writer, simply using the camera as a means to show us (in his own signature style, not just a "point-and-shoot") the conversations he wrote, like visual narration. So I find it interesting that his writer characters are often failures, not only in their professions but in their interpersonal and romantic relationships. We don't really see Lee having many friends; some acquaintances, and several lovers that he ends up cheating on anyways. I can't help but wonder if it's some not-so-subtle commentary on the profession.
I didn't really like how Kenneth Branagh was affecting an American Accent. I guess I'm just not really used to it, even in other American films, I prefer him British. It was pretty entertaining to hear him do a version of Woody Allen, though. Certain lines had Allen's signature stammering, hemming and hawing, and even a slight accent/intonation that was very Allen-inspired. I can't help but wonder if Woody writes all his dialogue with that weird nervous stammering that he's become such a "master" of.
As you can see from the above poster, Leonardo DiCaprio was in this movie, too. For all of ten minutes. That's not even an exaggeration: he was literally in this film for 10 minutes and 20 seconds. And yet he's on the poster for the film, and the star, Kenneth Branagh, is featured somewhat off to the side. This may not have been intentional on Woody Allen's part, but it serves to pretty much prove his point about celebrity. In 1998, Leo would have been a much bigger audience draw than Kenneth Branagh, Joe Mantegna, Judy Davis, or pretty much anyone else in the film. Even Lee's various girlfriends have more screen time than Leo, I'm sure (I didn't count, of course).
Woody Allen makes good movies, I think many people are in agreement on that point. Unfortunately, so many of his movies are better than average in terms of subtle and interesting camera work, low-key mise-en-scene, and witty dialogue, it doesn't really matter anymore. I think I would be more impressed if he purposefully directed a "bad" movie with his great dialogue, just to mix it up a little bit. It's gotta be a little boring for him, too, which is probably how he's able to direct a new movie every year for the last 32 years in a row.
I do recommend this film however, don't get me wrong. Branagh is always extremely entertaining, and his incredibly subtle impersonation of Allen is apparent at random points in the movie, and somewhat fluctuates from nearly nonexistant to nearly over-the-top. It also features a large number of celebrity cameos, famous characters, and Bebe Neuworth practicing fellatio on a peeled banana (which she then chokes on). Four out of five stars!