Woody Allen’s Celebrity was largely panned by the press when it was released in 1998 and it has since been ignored or forgotten as Allen, with impressive regularity, buried it under a string of subsequent mediocre film projects. The main criticism of the film seemed to be centred on Kenneth Branagh’s bizarre impersonation of Woody Allen, somewhat unfairly I believe, as Branagh is a competent actor and performs well in a film that has a lot more going for it than you would think.
Branagh plays Lee Simon, a journalist for a newspaper’s celebrity column. Recently divorced, his job provides him with the opportunity to rub shoulders with the rich and famous and make the most of his new found freedom, dating models and trying to get movie stars interested in a film screenplay he is writing. The casting of Branagh, complete with New York accent and Allen mannerisms is certainly a curious one. The role is clearly the prototypical Woody Allen character albeit one Allen is a little too old to play convincingly himself nowadays. Branagh just about carries off his portrayal of a not entirely sympathetic character through a certain amiable charm and a sardonic sense of humour in the amusing circumstances that this type of Allen character inevitably finds himself in.
His estranged wife Robin (Judy Davis) meanwhile, is finding it a lot more difficult to adjust, becoming increasingly insecure, highly-strung and neurotic, her behaviour leading to the usual high-embarrassment factor situations. Davis plays the role brilliantly and shows why she is one of the best actresses in American cinema today. In fact, the film is chock-full of excellent performances from an all-star cast – Charlize Theron is beautiful, vivacious and totally captivating as the movie’s convincing equivalent of Anita Ekberg – one of a number of parallels to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Allen even manages to bring out a relaxed, natural performance from the usually dreadful Winona Ryder.
The subject matter is not the most inspired nor the most original – pursuit of celebrity, fame and money leads to a shallow and empty existence, while a secure, stable, loving relationship – at least in later life - is the key to happiness. These are subjects that Allen has already explored very successfully in two of his best films Stardust Memories and Husbands and Wives, so one wonders why he feels he needs to return to the same subject here.
The dual storyline approach, often favoured by Allen is employed again here and blends together somewhat more coherently than in other films. He introduces us to the two main characters, Lee and Robin, shows their break-up and traces their subsequent paths and amorous interludes before they meet by chance at the end of the film and reflect on the strange twists of fate that have led them to where they are today. The structure allows director to keep the film’s episodic nature within a strong and meaningful framework and it works very well despite some awkward and stilted exposition that needlessly underlines what has already been shown or makes far too convenient short-cuts. Judy Davis sums up Robin’s not-too-clearly explained transformation with the lines: “How did I manage to swing this? Last year I was teaching English, performing a serious function. And suddenly, through a whirlwind series of events, I’ve become the kind of person I’ve always hated”.
Filmed by legendary Bergman cinematographer, Sven Nykvist (Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander), the film is gorgeously shot in fine-grain black and white, which is reasonably well transferred on this 1.85:1 anamorphic print. There are one or two minor artefacts and dust specks visible, but the picture is clear with strong blacks and well-balanced contrast throughout.
If you’ve seen any Woody Allen DVDs or read any of the recent reviews of his DVDs on DVDTimes, you’ll know what to expect here. Straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound which performs adequately.
On a Woody Allen DVD? Are you kidding? Unfortunately, we don’t even get so much as a trailer here. Even providing a biography for the all-star cast appears to have been too much like effort for Miramax, so all we have is scene access and that’s it.
Celebrity is not among Woody Allen’s best work, but it’s not too far from it either. It’s certainly a better film than it has been given credit for. It features likeable performances and a few excellent ones from a strong cast, an engaging, if not exactly new, storyline presented Woody Allen-style in a robust framework with excellent cinematography. It even scores well for a few laughs, which is often where a Woody Allen film stands or falls. This one is well worth another look.