Tracing the infection of America’s obsession with celebrity in a dissolving, and then dissolved, couple, Woody Allen’s Celebrity is dark, fluid satire. Governed by the remark, “You can learn a lot about a society from who they choose to celebrate,” it unwinds a rich, fascinating canvas where a wobbling of values and commitments by the permeating popular culture justifies the grammatical slip, the who for whom, the confusion of subject and object, in the remark made, no less, by an English teacher. (Allen’s point, I fear, is already lost. In the breadth of time between the film’s premiere and now, who has become officially acceptable for use in either pronomial case.) Not that many of us will get even our Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, but our infatuation with pop celebrities—movie stars, models, TV personalities, among others—has led to a kind of fantastic blur of the line dividing subject and object. Thus have we made imaginary stars of ourselves in what as a result have become our increasingly unstable lives. It’s the new solipsism; we relate to others through the prism of our inflated sense of ourselves—the dazzle we reflect from the stars in our midst.
Belatedly, Celebrity completes a thematic trilogy tepidly begun with Stardust Memories (1980) and continued brilliantly with—it’s Allen’s uproarious masterpiece—the Twainian Zelig (1983). In each, Allen pays homage to a film from the past. Memories recalls Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1962); Zelig, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). Celebrity returns to Fellini, specifically, La dolce vita (1959), where a celebrity journalist also is our guide through a similarly vast social canvas. His eyes cleared of Stardust, though, Allen’s earlier anxiety of influence has been confidently erased.
His Celebrity is a mordant comedy—harsh, uningratiating, foul-mouthed, witheringly ironic and, when funny (which isn’t often), with nearly as much pain as mirth in its laughs. It’s a great work. Celebrity finds Allen back on his humanist beat.
The couple at the center are Lee and Robin Simon. Lee is the celebrity journalist; Robin, the English teacher. The film opens with the shooting, also in New York, of another film: a spy thriller. The star (Melanie Griffith) is in suspenseful motion. Once the scene is completed, pursuing her for an interview is Lee (Kenneth Branagh, Allenanxious, but probing Woody’s persona rather than (as did John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, 1994) merely copying it—a terrific performance). For the interview, Lee accompanies the star to her nearby childhood home, where she parries Lee’s advances by explaining that, married, she practices fidelity from the waist down. In the time it takes to determine what the meaning of the word is is, she is ministering to Lee’s philandering organ—a spectacle Allen wryly omits to underscore how momentously this casual act affects the lives of Lee and Robin (glorious Judy Davis, probing the neurotic personality of Mia Farrow).
Forty-year-old Lee’s mid-life crisis has indeed been stirred up to fever pitch; brushing aside sixteen years of marriage, he walks out on his wife. Losing the war by missing the point of the battle, Robin blames herself as much as him, in particular for the sexual alacrity she traces to her Catholic upbringing. Robin has a nervous breakdown, in the throes of which she finds herself another man, seeks counsel on oral sex from a prostitute—the woman chokes on a banana in the course of her instruction—and, under her beau’s tutelage, trades in her noncelebrity classroom for a TV gig as a celebrity interviewer. Meanwhile, Lee, sliding to her rise, flounders from one unfulfilling affair to the next and fails, also, at his attempt to become again a serious novelist when his editor, pissed at his having dumped her, casts to the everlasting deep the one copy of his labored-upon manuscript. (Robin isn’t the only Mia out and about.) Meanwhile, against her own instincts, but at the urging of a fortune teller in whom she professes not to believe, Robin remarries.
The circular path Celebrity cuts brings us at last to the darkened movie theater where the spy thriller being filmed at the outset is having its premiere. In the lobby prior to the showing, we catch glimpses of all sorts of characters from earlier in the film; Allen may have had in mind Red (1994), the tremendous completion of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Tricolor Trilogy. Of course, Lee runs into Robin and her marital replacement for him. Cordiality and bravado crowd the stale air. Cut to darkness; the premiering movie begins to unwind. Seated together, Robin and spouse appear a settled couple. The camera drops down the nearest aisle several rows and then floats leftward to find Lee; whereupon, at the point of discovering him, a zoom exacts a modest magnification of his unhappy face. Watching on-screen the woman who Lewinskied him, and in the very scene the shooting of which he once hovered over, now must remind Lee of his lost marriage. Like Marcello Mastroianni’s character in La dolce vita, though, full of himself and self-pity, Lee misses what we grasp: Allen’s stinging final dramatic irony; for Robin, always a puppet on somebody’s string, is as “happy” now as she was with Lee until he walked out on her, that is, that her second marriage, at best, matches the delusional quality of her first, and that, even on the purgatorial fringes of celebrity where Lee feverishly resides, his own reality adds up to little more than the fakery being projected in front of him—this, in part, because of that screen, and the delirious, gluttonous pop culture it represents. Lee misses all of this; it is we who are left to bear the burden of Celebrity.
Now complete, Allen’s trilogy is in ravishing black and white. Gordon Willis lensed the first two parts; Sven Nykvist, the last. Gorgeously seedy, Nykvist’s tonalities evoke an empty, sordid, most seductive world. In a nighttime automobile sequence, Nykvist’s erotic use of light on the wrists and arms of the model whom Charlize Theron (spectacularly) plays is miraculous.
Nearly all the acting is marvelous. As the one lover of Lee’s whose unfaithfulness mirrors what once was his own, though, Winona Ryder remains a wooden androgyne with no ability to act or even speak for the camera. Her ineptitude is the film’s principal flaw. By way of compensation, however, Titanic wash-out Leonardo DiCaprio breaks even here, providing a vivid caricature of his What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lassë Hallström, 1993) co-star, the bratty, empty, self-indulgent, hotel room-trashing Johnny Depp—in one talent-free package, the reeking asshole of American celebrity.
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