'Celebrity,' Illusion and Reality

By Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, November 20, 1998

Woody Allen is a man of many faces.

Earlier this year, he played a reasonable facsimile of himself in Barbara Kopple's documentary "Wild Man Blues", which followed the clarinet player and his then-girlfriend, Soon-Yi Previn, through Europe during the 1996 tour of his jazz band.

More recently, he starred as Z-4195, lending his distinctive voice to the insecure arthropod hero of the computer-animated "Antz". He also appeared in an uncredited cameo as a theater director in Stanley Tucci's farcical "The Impostors."

Now, Woody Allen is appearing as Kenneth Branagh-or rather Kenneth Branagh is appearing as Woody Allen-in Allen's topical new comedy "Celebrity," one of the strangest cases of impersonation I have ever seen.

Branagh here plays Manhattan travel writer and celebrity profiler Lee Simon, whose stammeringly neurotic, tic-ridden and romantically doomed character seems to have been based on watching tapes of every old Allen performance from "Annie Hall" to "Deconstructing Harry." Don't get me wrong-Branagh is good. In fact, he's great. It just seems as if the writer and director could have saved a little money by casting himself in the lead role, instead of paying some hotshot Brit to get in front of the camera and pretend to be him. For the kind of cash Branagh commands, you would expect a performance we haven't seen a dozen times before.

But never mind that. "Celebrity" is about much more than Lee Simon's failed love life, although that string of dismal disappointments does give shape to the larger narrative. Beginning with his divorce from wife Robin (Judy Davis), "Celebrity" charts Simon's disaster course through his fling with a starlet (Melanie Griffith), his flirtation with a supermodel (Charlize Theron), his hotel foursome with a hot young Johnny Depp-ian stud (Leonardo DiCaprio), his relationship with a live-in lover (Famke Janssen), to his affair with an age-inappropriate waitress and theater hopeful (Winona Ryder).

In addition to examining the sexual woes of the middle-aged male (a seemingly endless source of inspiration for Allen, who still manages to mine some fresh insights from among the stale), "Celebrity" also uses Simon's character as a satiric lens to explore our fascination with fame, our desire to possess it or merely to bathe in it through proximity. Although the glass he holds up to the glitterati distorts like a prism, Allen's genius is that we are still able to recognize not only the glamorous types he is mocking but our own selves. For "Celebrity" indicts the worshipers as much as the worshiped.

With gentle parody that is more plaintive than ferocious, the handsome black-and-white film boasts many spot-on characterizations, both large and small, so many that it is impossible to name them all. In addition to the aforementioned actors, all of whom turn in solid and often quite funny performances, "Celebrity" is brightened by a number of gem-like cameos and supporting roles. Bebe Neuwirth renders a particularly memorable portrayal of a celebrity hooker attempting to instruct Robin Simon in the finer details of oral sex. There is also a celebrity priest (John Carter), a celebrity plastic surgeon (Michael Lerner), and an acrobat famous for being obese (Heather Marni). Donald Trump and Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco appear as themselves.

Of course the script, never above making fun of Allen himself, also cracks wise about an irritating art-house director (played by real-life art-house director Andre Gregory) who shoots all his pretentious films in black-and-white.

It is this sense of real life blurring with make-believe that Allen's film is really playing with, like a kitten toying with a scared mouse. Back and forth he bats the subject, moving between reality, illusion and the imitation of reality with a deft touch that may bruise but never kills.

Perhaps for this reason, casting Branagh as himself but not himself is a decision that's really more canny than convenient. As Allen forces us to acknowledge what appears to be his ghost inhabiting the body of Kenneth Branagh playing someone else named Lee Simon, the punch line beneath the many-layered joke finally becomes apparent.

Sometimes people are recognized for what they've done, and sometimes they're famous for just being famous.

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