Unintentionally Unfunny

Norman Green

When Woody Allen hits the mark -- watch out. He captures the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker can. I think he really sees himself as a writer. So many of his movies are about ideas, and grownup ideas at that: love, loss, infidelity, art, crime, death, G-d, modernity. Woody reads books, he takes risks, he stretches the medium. And his loving rendering of New York City ought to endure for all time, like the work of Salinger, Wolfe, Bellow, Capote. But when he's off he just makes you feel empty. Celebrity sucked me dry.

It's the story of another Woody alter-ego and a woman. The guy (Kenneth Branaugh) trades his soulmate (Judy Davis) for a series of younger, superficially prettier ladies -- a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an editor (Famke Janssen), a treacherous actress (Winona Ryder). Branaugh, playing Woody as a smart reporter, wrecks his life in spite of his poetic intellect, in spite of his wonderfully philosophical introspection. Sounds a little like the filmmaker, doesn't it?

Davis finds true love. You really root for her romance with Mr. Nice Guy, played against type by Joe Mantegna. Yes, Celebrity is another morality play. Not a good move from a filmmaker whose celebrated infidelities have destroyed all moral authority. One recalls another philandering figure on the stage of American celebrity whose recent mea culpa came too late and rang falsely.

As usual, Allen assembles a stunning ensemble of talent: Melanie Griffith, Andre Gregory, Hank Azaria, Michael Lerner, Gretchen Mol, Bebe Neuwirth. Plus there are nonstop, priceless appearances by "real people:" Erica Jong, Bruce Jay Friedman, Isaac Mizrahi, Donald Trump, and everybody's favorites, the Buttafuoccos. J.K. Simmons, who plays a neo-Nazi on the first rate HBO prison series Oz, does a chilling turn as a hawker of bleeding Jesuses. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio literally tears up a few scenes and runs away with the movie. This is a superb cast. Everybody wants to work with Woody. But the error of Kenneth Branaugh playing the author casts a pall that no amount of star power can dissipate.

Yes, we get breathtaking views of the City, photographed in black and white by Sven Nykvist. Yes, we can count on Woody for dead-on set pieces like the high school reunion, and a rabbi whining at skinheads in the green room of a talk show over who ate the last hors d'oeuvre. But no, Celebrity simply does not hold together. The editing is fragmentary, fractured, disjointed, chaotic. Too much is unintentionally unfunny. And it succumbs to the kind of inner emptiness it tries to decry. As someone once said about psychoanalysis, Celebrity is the disease it purports to cure.