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'Celebrity' is a focus in fixation

December 03, 1998

Review By Jason Myers

A man promotes ceramic Christ-figures from the confines of his van.

A priest enjoys an audience with a group questioning the relative fame of Elvis and the Pope, The Beatles and Jesus.

A plane soars desperately through the air, leaving fading white letters to spell out "HELP."

Think someone is trying to make a point? Yes, Woody Allen has grown somewhat didactic over the years. That's Mr. Allen, to you. It continues to be more difficult for the viewer to delineate between character, once as important to him as jokes, and theme, now so seriously involved in his films as to stifle almost all humor.

Gone are the feckless joys and absurd laughs of "Bananas" and "Annie Hall."

"Celebrity" is clearly Allen's "La Dolce Vita." He sets his cool eye upon a culture that lusts after fame and the famous, without ever really understanding its motives or even if it has any. Rather than ending with bliss on the beach, as his European predecessor did, Allen opts for sorrow in the sky. I suppose our time is more cynical, but if you remove the endings, "Celebrity" and "La Dolce Vita" seem almost identical in tone, message and even content to a remarkable extent.

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The handsome and desired journalist is Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), and those he pursues are not royalty of state, but rather of state of mind.

The most witty and acute observation in "Celebrity," made by Robin (Judy Davis), Lee's former wife, is that those our culture celebrates possess no exceptional genius, only wafting wisps of beauty or surety.

That does not stop us from desperately seeking Madonna, or Diana, or any of the other hunted icons of past and present. Lee, with his journalistic credentials, just has more access to the stars.

Sven Nykvist's cinematography is elegant and calming, its shades lustrous and rich. I admire Allen's ability to resist the gloss a younger or lesser director might have applied to such subject matter, but his usual restraint mars this film. It is rather difficult to criticize a culture without seeing it fully. Allen also returns to his catalog of Cole Porter-style songs, and while the opening words "You oughta be in pictures" are fitting, it would have been better had they been sung by Bono.

The pacing of "Celebrity" lacks the relentless energy it requires, despite the fact that Lee is sexually engaged with someone new every 10 minutes. He is not restless because he is not satisfied; he is restless because society deposits the illusion of perfection in his mind, Allen would say.

There are some shockingly funny moments and performers. Judy Davis hyperventilates better than any actress, and Leonardo DiCaprio's enormously rude and conceited portrayal of Brandon Darrow provides a humor Allen used to abound in - raw, unafraid, emotional more than intellectual.

Allen's film feels like a documentary with footage from a dream edited into the subtext. "Celebrity" has bracing insights about the sexual and social fixations of America, and it has a greater and deeper tone than any film Allen has made recently. I would be tempted to say the reality he depicts on screen masterfully represents life, if only it was not so artfully displayed.




Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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