Woody sets up his celebrities like ducks in a shooting gallery. From
Branagh to Buttafuoco (see below for a list that admittedly, has been
reduced to people above the level of weather persons), they all play
their roles, tongue planted firmly in cheek, with that self-satisfied
air that says, "I've really made it - I'm in a Woody Allen movie."
Allen's only mistake with this picture was his failure to write in a
handful of film critics, so as to cast his reviews from the get-go.
But he managed to make us unmistakeably part of the celebrity process
Allen with a pressbook that is also a parody of the celebrity-touting
process. In its prose, we sense the oxygen deprivation in the
sealed-off atmosphere surrounding a celebrity, even a celebrity
offering a critique of the culture feeding on itself.
Actress Famke Janssen raves of Woody's genius, "Things in his movies
become current topics when the movie comes out." Hey, chicken, get
back in that egg! The pressbook even reveals what it took, if you
wanted to buy your way into "Celebrity." "...the Trump Marina Hotel
and Casino in Atlantic City...were donated by Donald Trump (who
appears as himself later in the film in the scenes filmed at
Being in one of Woody Allen's films is probably the ultimate status
symbol for New Yorkers, and his humor is the yardstick by which too
many relationships in Manhattan are measured. For some reason, people
love to think their love affairs belong in a Woody Allen movie. It's
not just that a certain class of people scrambling for success are
legitimately, if not entertainingly, as miserable as Woody Allen's
characters. Allen somehow rationalizes or justifies the suffering
people go through, and he does it so well that more and more people
are doing crazier and crazier things in order to become miserable,
empty celebrities. In Celebrity, he shows us a typical scenario of
Man Sacrificing Marriage for the Fast Lane.
We've seen this material before, but Allen has given it a surprising
spin. Judy Davis - as mousy little housefrau Robin Simon - has no
desire to see and be seen. Hubby Lee Simon (Branagh) wants more!
More, more, more! For him, it's not enough to interview celebrities.
He wants to write a worthy work of art, or a work worthy of celebrity.
Two novels have had devastating reviews, and we see him meet the
celebrity reviewer from the Times, a man so reptilian as to remember
his own prose and insist that he's still right. Maybe the reviewer's
not wrong, but Lee's insight is as limited as many men's in his
situation: it's his wife's fault. So they must part.
Making new lives on their own, these two are dangerous. She wants to
be left alone. But she has friends who expose her to self-improvement
at the hands of butchers like Dr. Lupus (Michael Lerner at his most
hysterical). Trying to escape, she trips into the arms of the 100%
perfect man and must grow into him. This requires a little
sex-education with a happy hooker and some bananas (a fruitful
approach to be tried later at home). Ultimately, she finds that the
best way to get over her ex- is to become a completely different
person - even if it's a shallow, lunching lady, a type she had
previously disdained. She's doing on TV what her husband did in print:
interviewing celebrities at lunch. Nothing could be more vapid
(except maybe the ephemeral celebrity of Vanna White.) Nevertheless,
opines Woody about this character, being happy is nothing to be
ashamed of. But is that the same thing as celebrity is nothing to be
Meanwhile, Branagh entertains us as the screenplay-peddling scribbler
who promotes himself as the price of self-respect. And suffers
accordingly. His disgrace is comic, because he is disgraced by a long
succession of women too good for him: Melanie Griffith as a
do-anything sex symbol, Charlize Theron as a nympho supermodel, an
orgy with Leonardo DiCaprio & entourage, book editor Famke Janssen who
drowns his new novel, and ultimately, his own ex-wife, Judy Davis,
transformed into the successful celebrity beloved by New York. She
has exactly what he wanted - and here's her secret! - because she
didn't want it too much.
The other message is that, no matter how hard we try, trying hard is
not enough. Luck is most of it, she tells her miserable ex-. And not
wanting it too much is more likely to get you there than who you know.
In the world of celebrities, as we know, it's not what you know; it's
who knows you. In its droll way, the movie takes us through the
arguments of Six Degrees of Separation. The only New Yorker not in it
is Mike Nichols. (He must have been making his own movie.)
With the exception of Kenneth Branagh as the usual schlemiel Woody
Allen character (in your dreams, Woody!), the movie is alive with
type-casting. Judy Davis as the inhibited neurotic divorcee. Bebe
Neuwirth as the straight-talking NY callgirl. Joe Mantegna as the
regular Joe TV producer. And lots of supermodels as...well super
models. (Being a model without being a super model is one definition
For the cliche of the meteoric Hollywood love-interest with a violent
streak, Allen got Leonardo DiCaprio - even before Titanic, proving
that Juliet Taylor can read Woody Allen's mind, since elsewhere he
hadn't written the script yet. Ten years ago, that role would have
gone to Nicholas Cage, which brings up an interesting way to view a
picture like this: who would have been in this cast fifteen years ago?
Or even fifteen minutes ago?
Celebrity is not just an ego-enhancing quality that inflates the
individual. It takes its toll on society, as well, as soon as
celebrities start spouting advice or opining about major issues. There
was a time when Americans sought experts, and that culture of
expertise was accordingly derided. At least, expertise involved a
modicum of investigation, study or some kind of proof that one had
trod the turf to which one now posed as guide and guru. Experts have
gone by the wayside, as celebrities have come forth. A typical op-ed
column during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal featured advice to the
President from various celebrities, none of it very insightful or
surprising (Donald Trump: "lose the wife, quit the job and have fun").
And every cause needs a celebrity in order to raise money.
There must still be a world where a librarian or teacher, like Judy
Davis' Robin Simon, can find respect and happiness without having to
be on TV. And yes, there's still a world where a journalist (a
reporter with an expensive habit, such as Branagh's Lee Simon) can
write his articles without having to sell a screenplay and date
supermodels. The only people putting that world at risk are movie
directors who put us amateurs in places we don't belong. To stick to
your last is no disgrace.
Oops, I'm making "Celebrity" sound too serious. It also offers sex
education via a hooker and a banana. And who doesn't need that?
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