Three caveats about the cast of Woody Allen’s Celebrity must top this review. First, this movie got more than the usual publicity for an Allen film solely because Leonardo Dicaprio is in it. But any teenaged Leo fans must be forewarned: The guy from Titanic takes up about 10 of the movie’s 113 minutes, and the rest of the film will leave you either bewildered or apathetic.
Secondly, when I heard that Kenneth Branagh was in the movie, I envisioned the wonderful British actor bring grace and suavity to the lead role. Instead, Branagh ends up doing an uncanny imitation of Allen — the gestures, the stuttering, even the wardrobe. This nebbishy impersonation makes his character — a womanizing journalist who drives around in an Aspen-Martin — quite implausible, bordering on intolerable.
Lastly, the unsung heroine of the movie is Allen alumnus Judy Davis, whose performance as Robin, the journalist’s neurotic ex-wife, creates the movie’s only believable character. With all the fuss that critics have made about Branagh’s and Dicaprio’s appearances, there was barely a whisper about Davis’s work. But without her, the movie would be downright soulless.
Branagh plays Lee Simon, a lowly travel writer who itches to become a celebrity journalist. But writer-director Allen doesn’t begin to get the details down. Star-chasing Simon carries only a pocket-sized notepad, on which he occasionally scribbles some notes. As the husband of a local newspaper editor, I can tell you that the backpacks of my wife’s staffers weigh more than Simon does.
(Simon is also an aspiring novelist and scriptwriter, yet he still composes on a typewriter, and he had only a single manuscript of his half-completed novel. Forget computers, even–hasn’t this guy ever heard of copy machines?)
Simon inexplicably gets assigned celebrity beats and does his best to foul them up. In the middle of an orgy with the room-trashing heartthrob (Dicaprio), Simon tries to get the guy to green-light his script. And Simon’s date with a hot fashion model (Charlize Theron) is ruined when he plows his sports car into a showroom during a passionate kiss.
In the meantime, Allen inserts some scattershot satire. We’re meant to lament a pop culture that makes celebrities of one-hit wonders and supermodels. This lecture disguised as a movie carries little weight, coming from a director who shuns publicity yet still gets photographed at only the poshest hot spots and fashion shows. In middle-class America, we call that having our cake and eating it too.
The rest of Allen’s standard big-name cast — including Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, and Melanie Griffith — come off as ciphers. And Allen, once renowned for his movies’ memorable females, here presents Bebe Neuwirth (of “Cheers” and “Frasier”) as a prostitute who tutors Robin, in the most insulting female movie scene of the year.
A lot of Woody Allen’s latter-day work features interesting characters and insights that are far offset by Allen’s obsession with sexual mechanics. Celebrity is a prime example.