Celeb Spotting

Elizabeth Weitzman

The most intriguing performances amid the high-wattage clutter of Woody Allen's latest look at Manhattan's privileged come from actors at opposing ends of the celebrity scale: one was supposed to be huge but hasn't quite made it there, and one whose blinding shine couldn't possibly have been predicted.

As a stimulant-seeking supermodel, Charlize Theron -- hyper-promoted, so why can't you quite picture her? -- gets it just right. She's not the clichéd bimbo; in fact, like many of today's ubermannequins she's got a good business head and knows it. She uses this common sense to whip celebrity writer Lee (Kenneth Branagh) around for fun, before throwing him over her shoulder and striding confidently away from the wreckage. But Lee's the one who's can't scale out of the rubble, and that's what the movie cares most about. He's divorced his frumpy wife Robin (Judy Davis) during a raging midlife crisis, only he doesn't seem any better off pursuing a host of pretty things, ranging from Melanie Griffith's pampered star to Famke Janssen's sensible editor to Winona Ryder's vapid tease.

For Robin, the breakup becomes a catalyst, allowing her to fall for a nice, regular guy (Joe Mantegna) and even earn some recognition as a neophyte t.v. host. But her social-climbing ex-husband is less fortunate. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the film's set piece, which pairs a desperate Lee, trying to get a screenplay read, with an actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio was barely more than a cute face when he was hired for this film, which makes it all the more entertaining: he portrays a celebrity of the highest order; the type so swamped by admirers he can barely make it from the limo to his hotel room, which he destroys within minutes. DiCaprio has so much fun with the role it's hard to know whether he's laughing at himself or considers it a portrait of others, but either way it's an irresistible (if purposefully repellent) read.

There are also plenty of other, less invigorating, vignettes meant to illustrate the vagaries of celebrityhood, too; most of these are enhanced by copious cameo appearances--Bebe Neuwirth, Hank Azaria, Michael Lerner, Isaac Mizrahi, Sam Rockwell, Erica Jong, and the Buttafuocos are among those who parade by.

But why? To teach us that fame is fleeting, fickle, and false? Obviously Allen considers this a personal subject, but we receive no new insights into his mind and few fresh looks at the wheels behind stardom's machinery. A stuttering Branagh stands in for Allen with a vengeance, but a performance would have been preferable to mere (though admittedly impressive) mimicry. Davis is worse, evidently having played the Allen neurotic so many times all she's got left is a passel of screechy tics and mannerisms. Really, the most interesting part of the movie (other than the gorgeous black and white cinematography) is the celeb spotting. What does it say about us that even in a denunciation against the titular subject we accept that the most interesting people are the ones at the center of the limelight, not those standing on the sidelines peering in? And what does it say about Allen that he so generously indulges us?