'Celebrity': Bad Old New York

By Stephen Hunter, Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, November 20, 1998

At the beginning of "Celebrity" skywriting appears above an emerald city.

"Surrender Dorothy"?

No, it reads "Help." But it's really saying: "Surrender America."

Woody Allen's new film has a few shortcomings but it's a heartfelt cry from what may be the last serious man left in the America as he contemplates what his native land has become. New York is no longer Oz run by a great and powerful wizard. It's been taken over by the wicked witches of vanity and ego, of narcissism and appetite. And all the Munchkins want to be wicked witches, too – or at least have their own shows.

"Celebrity" is, in fact, a movie full of wicked witches, so political correctness demands that its misogyny be noted. What did les gals ever do to Allen that they deserve such treatment as this? Almost to a woman, they are portrayed as grasping, shallow, treacherous and silly. The one exception pays for her goodness and trust by undergoing a crushing betrayal, played for laughs when an audience of moving men show up to witness it.

But is it misogyny or misanthropy? For the men of "Celebrity" are just as slimy, creepy, greedy, weaselly and pathetic. The guys either have it and will kill to keep it, or don't have it and will kill to get it. What place is this, where are we now? Oh, yeah. Sod-om, Sod-om, it's a town of a hell.

The Bronx may still be up and the Battery down: without ideals, without illusions, without traditions, with neither pity nor mercy. Heroism is impossible. Glory is measured merely in the flash of a photog's bulb or the blaze of the strobes that TV cameras carry. Everybody feels entitled to their 15 minutes, and those who fail are embittered for life. Using Sven Nykvist's gritty black-and-white photography, Allen shows us not the romantic, Cole Porter-enchanted "Manhattan" of his 1983 film but Weegee's burg of squalor and glamour, cheek by jowl.

Our entry into this landscape of rotting souls is the unhappy Simon couple, in the process of becoming uncoupled as the movie gets underway. Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is a bottom-feeder in New York's media pond, a failed novelist fallen to writing puff pieces for travel and celeb mags while sleazily trying to sell his screenplay to his interview subjects. His wife, Robin (Judy Davis), is an utterly repressed and sex-fearing Catholic English professor who cannot understand why her husband, after attending a 25th high school reunion, left her.

Actually, these are rather fragile vessels for the voyage of the damned that Allen intends. Neither is fully imagined as a character but merely as a symbol or, in Branagh's case, an impersonation. His imitation of Allen isn't as annoying as it might be: He hems and haws and is full of verbal shuck-and-jive, like his master, but he doesn't, thank God, try that nasalized Brooklyn whine with its plummy undercurrent of woe and self-loathing. He's a Woody Allen from nowheresville, and at least his physical attractiveness goes partway in explaining why beautiful women (Melanie Griffith, Charlize Theron, Famke Janssen and Winona Ryder) keep offering to have sex with him, in a way in they would never would with Woody Allen if he weren't already . . . Woody Allen. Still, the hemming and hawing somehow get in the way.

As for Davis's Robin, she's even more ill-used by the story. Robin Simon represents its principal irony: Unlike her husband, she doesn't particularly want to be famous, so of course by the laws of an ironic universe she becomes famous, as a dingbat TV celeb interviewer, a job she gets on dumb luck. Meanwhile, Lee hustles and sells and begs and wheedles and ends up even less successful than when he started.

Still, they are our tour guides and they act out some brilliant set pieces that are far more interesting than either of them. An early sequence follows as the now sexually available Lee connects with a dream date from fantasyland. He manages to connect with not merely a slinky, thong-wearing blond supermodel (Theron) but a slinky, thong-wearing blond supermodel who claims to be polymorphously perverse. Any part of her body, she announces with too much tongue showing between her lips, is capable of orgasm. Is this every boy's dream or what?

But it's as if the universe has a law stating that Level 4 men are not permitted to score with Level 10 women, no matter how willing both may be. So the universe declares itself against them and subverts his every attempt at closure until the whole delicious erotic possibility disintegrates before our very eyes.

In yet another adventure in loud cuckoo-land, his script discussion appointment with a young superstar (Leonardo diCaprio, presumably as himself) degenerates into an orgy of the beautiful and stupid. Branagh's Lee tries desperately to keep up with the kid's out-of-control hedonism, but finally finds a line even he isn't low enough to cross. Not only that, it runs up a $6,000 debt at the craps table!

But in a funny way, the center of the movie isn't what's important; far more amusing is the action on the fringes, the throwaway humor, where the media have scorched so deep they've made celeb-speak the rhetoric of the common man, and the fantastical has become the commonplace. A priest discusses his market share; a plastic surgeon discusses penile implants with a patient on camera; a skinhead asks a Klansman in a trash-TV show waiting room who represents him, and the answer comes: "William Morris." Then a rabbi looks in and disappointedly notes, "The skinheads have eaten all the bagels."

That's an apt summary of Allen's dyspeptic view of American reality: The skinheads have eaten all the bagels and the supermodels say they'll go upstairs with you, but somehow they never do.

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