| Dir: Woody Allen
“From you, I’d be willing to catch terminal cancer.”
Woody Allen’s fame is inconceivable to the man himself. It’s habitually unwelcome and fiercely rejected, both when there are glowing accolades for his work and scathing anger at his domestic drama. He has never attended an Oscars ceremony to formally collect any of his awards. He wanes against interviews, a real shame as the Woody Allen on Woody Allen conversations with Stig Bjorkman are terrific. He would not have even reached the level of success and notoriety he has if his managers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe didn’t force the timid young gag writer to tell his own jokes on stage and persevere with his squeamish act for over a year until he unearthed his now famous nebbish neurotic New York intellectual persona. The toxic culture of the celebrity has routinely perplexed this modest and content man, with Annie Hall memorably communicating his dislike towards its hotbed of Los Angeles. So it’s unsurprising that he would eventually fashion a film around mocking the cult of celebrities and the stars themselves.
Celebrity offers something of a throwback to Allen’s early work in the sense of it being a loosely connected series of escapades riffing on the attention we pay to, as Allen called them, “the oddest people.” It’s a decent premise with some witty showbiz satire, but it is disappointingly taken in a one dimensional and conventional exploration of the “self-obsessed, sophmorish and solipsistic.” Half baked and underdeveloped, it descends into an empty film devoid of any real meaning. It has little to say and fails to articulate what it does actually want to. All this becomes more remarkable when you see the running time of 113 minutes, which seems lazy for Allen (and longtime editor Susan E. Morse, here in her final collaboration with the director which runs from 1979s Manhattan) who can make a masterpiece like Zelig in 79 minutes.
Judy Davis reveals herself as one of the film’s sole saviours, despite some cringeworthy moments. The one line she delivers as Blanche DuBois makes for a wonderful pairing with Diane Keaton’s impersonation of Marlon Brando from Love and Death –two comic giants in their timing and physicality. There’s also some fun cameos from movie stars (then and now) including Winona Ryder, Sam Rockwell, Melanie Griffith, Charlize Theron, Hank Azaria, J. K. Simmons, Joe Mantegna and even the transcendent celebrity himself, Donald Trump.
Allen began to recede from the front of the camera with Bullets Over Broadway, where John Cusack took the reigns and did a solid job in the Woody Allen surrogate role. Many would go on to become Allen 2.0; Owen Wilson, Larry David, Will Ferrell, Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Biggs. All had mixed success, but none have failed in their performance so spectacularly as Kenneth Branagh as the disillusioned celebrity journality. That an actor the calibre of Branagh is reduced to not merely an impersonation, but a pure facsimile of Allen (the timing, intonations, stammers, tics, neurosis, shrewdness, anxiety, ignorance to social contexts) is unfortunate and, quite frankly, rather embarrassing. His character is a wholly terrible and insufferable person with poor judgement that makes it difficult to invest in any of his escapades.
This is merely just one of Allen’s many motifs that are emerging as stale. There is even an explicit carbon copy of the same joke in Annie Hall where Alvie reduces Allison Portchnik to a series of cultural stereotypes as form of flirting. Branagh doesn’t do it as charmingly as Allen and, equally, Allen the filmmaker doesn’t do anything here as effectively as his 1977 counterpart. Even his many attempts at homaging his own faourite celebrity filmmakers begin to lose their integrity, with Fellini’s La dolche vita here appearing as more of a parody. Allen commented on the film after it’s release:
“I had no tremendous insight into it, only to record that it was a phenomenon that permeated my culture at that point, that everybody had such a reverence for celebrity and that it meant so much. That was what I so was trying to do. To what degree I succeeded I don’t know, but I tried.”
Even in 2017, nobody questions Allen’s effort as his key detriment. But Celebrity marks the first sign of the auteur’s artistic decline and arguably his first outright bad feature film. His early films suffer from inexperience and composure but have many humourous merits. A Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy may be trivial but it’s a visual treat (as, to be fair, is Celebrity in all its monochrome glory, in Sven Nykvist’s final film with Allen) and well performed. September, for all its turmoil, has ambition and displays skilled craftsmanship. This is simply Woody Allen operating at a significantly lower level than he is capable of for the first time. This was the first film released following Titanic featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and, as Allen amusingly notes, “it doesn’t make a dime.” Most Allen films don’t, but unlike the majority, this didn’t deserve to.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing