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Trading on 'Celebrity'

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Reduced to a Cultural Stereotype: Kenneth Branagh plays a novelist corrupted by the fame game in 'Celebrity.'

Woody Allen turns unlikely moralist about adultery in latest film

By Richard von Busack

THE BITCH GODDESS success attacked by the twitch god Woody Allen--that's Celebrity. In his new film, Allen transforms Kenneth Branagh into an image of himself, and it's as bizarre a metamorphosis as has ever been seen outside the pages of Ovid.

Branagh, who looks as relaxed as a witness in the dock, plays Lee Simon, a nervous wreck who customarily destroys his own love affairs. He was once a novelist whose two books were flayed by the critics. By the end of the film, he has devolved from serious writer into the worst kind of celebrity journalist, like ones Movieline magazine employs.

The style is painfully familiar: interviews by chummy scribblers asking actors embarrassingly personal questions. And yet hack and celeb get along famously--so famously, in fact, that you wonder if they might have gotten along infamously as well. Lee, for instance, receives a sexual favor during the course of an interview with movie star Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith).

Celebrity compares Lee's career to that of his ex-wife, Robin Simon (Judy Davis, also doing a bundle-of-nerves Allen imitation), who begins as a teacher and ends a TV chat-show host. Davis' character is so nervous in bed with her new fiancé, a TV producer played by Joe Mantegna, that she hires a sex worker (Bebe Neuwirth) to teach her how to perform fellatio correctly. It's the moral of the story: Robin and Lee are both drafted into the cult of personality. Robin learns to suck, and Simon learns to be sucked--that's why they call it "suck-sess."

In this excruciatingly long and surprisingly unfunny comedy, the Simons' path to fame is lined with encounters with the greats. The most notable of these greats, from the point of view of the marketing people at Miramax, is Leonard DiCaprio. He plays an actor named Brandon Darrow, a famous brute who is in the middle of a drug and sex binge when Lee comes to talk to him.

It's a sour joke, seeing the idol of millions of 14-year-olds snorting big mounds of coke and orgying. But it's a joke that wasn't apparent when Celebrity was made, before the release of Titanic. And there's no punchline to Darrow's cartoonish scenes of misbehavior.

In another one-dimensional part, Winona Ryder plays Nola, a performer who is a self-proclaimed untamable woman. Untamable, maybe, yet she's tamed by an old Allen gambit. Lee sizes up Nola as a rich kid in therapy, thereby reducing her to a cultural stereotype, to use Carol Kane's phrase in Annie Hall. Later in the film, Nola comes to represent everything Lee could have been if he hadn't compromised his integrity. Although, when Lee drops everything to grab for Nola, he ruins his life further.

"Misshapen" is too good a word for Celebrity, which is a sprawling, seemingly endless flop. Dismissing Celebrity out of hand--and the temptation to do this is strong--may not give Allen credit for an unusual structure that shuttles back and forth in time to show the ethical decline of Simon and Simon.

At moments, Davis is a pleasure to watch, especially in a few jittery scenes in which she visits a Catholic retreat. Yet Davis' remarkable fierceness burns a hole in the flimsy character she's trying to play. Her fidgety, Allen-style mannerisms get tiresome; she worries her sleeves so much it looks as if she's trying to knit the sweater she's wearing.

THE FILM PROPOSES celebrity- hood as a plague ready to lay anyone low at any time. Even fighting the plague may not be enough to save you--Robin is all but dragged into her job as a TV host. The casting of so many noteworthy actors in this diatribe leaves Allen open to the accusation that he's doing exactly what he's castigating--namely, trading on celebrities.

The noxiousness of celebrityhood isn't an original idea, and Allen presents the idea without the sort of force or speed needed to make it fresh. The filmmaker's personal experience with scandal must have provided some of the reasons for making Celebrity. At the time, it was easy not to join the moral dog pile on Allen. After all, he had never preached monogamy in his films.

In Celebrity, however, Allen shakes his finger at Lee Simon for being promiscuous. It's bad enough that the wit is so sparse here, that Allen's repeating old gags. Now he's becoming a moralist on the subject of infidelity. He's beginning to sound like yet another '90s tail-dragger, covering the tracks he made years ago.

Celebrity (R; 113 min.), directed and written by Woody Allen, photographed by Sven Nykvist and starring Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis, opens Friday at the Camera Three in San Jose and at the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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