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Director: Woody Allen
Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, BeBe Nuewirth, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hank Azaria

There's something about Woody Allen films that feels a lot like listening in on someone's therapy session. Several of the Allen films of the past ten years have made little attempt to disguise the fact that they are reenactments of actual episodes of his life. Husbands and Wives is an obvious example, where the Woody Allen character destroys his marriage in a vain quest for a younger woman. And 1997's Deconstructing Harry deals with a writer handling the ramifications of his actions after he thinly disguises the lives of his friends and lovers as popular literature. As a result, one of the main complaints made of Woody Allen's 1998 release, Celebrity, was that it was an indulgent and egotistical foray into the mental state and libido of its creator, blithely exposing the psyche and sexual desires of a nebbish little gnome and showcasing a place few wanted to willfully tread.

Nonetheless, it's a thoroughly engaging film, though it covers little territory that is new for Allen. Shot in black and white (in a remarkably unpretentious way) Celebrity tells the story of a Woody stand in, performed by Kenneth Branagh, and the ex wife whom he has recently divorced, a mousy, nervous woman, well played by Judy Davis. Branagh's stunning portrayal of even the most sublime Woody mannerisms has been well commented on, and Davis' character has more than a passing resemblance to Mia Farrow… As I said, nothing new here, no pretense of disguising the film's roots in the film maker's real life. Branagh's character, stuck in the endless crisis of middle age all Woody Allen characters seem mired in, feels he can best alleviate the stagnation of his existence by ending his relationship with his wife and chasing after a number of younger, more beautiful women (not that Judy Davis isn't a doll), while simultaneously trying to enter the world of modern celebrity. At the same time, Davis' more honorable character ends up falling head first into this same world, without really trying. At various points during the film, the two run into each at social gatherings with humorous and often telling results. And at the end, one of them has achieved a level of comfort and contentment, whereas the other is left pontificating on the mess of their lives… I won't give away whom, but if you have any knowledge of Woody Allen films it shouldn't be hard to guess.

Despite it's sometimes ponderous subject matter, Celebrity is a funny film. Allen has a much underappreciated sense of slapstick, and it's used to great effect when a professional call girl played by BeBe Nuewirth begins choking on a banana while instructing Judy Davis' character in the art of fellatio. (Bringing to mind a similar scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) And Kenneth Branagh plays the standard Woody Allen stuttering nervousness to its full comic potential, showcasing his absolute fish out of water mentality in the world of high fashion and glamour. Leonardo DiCaprio's over the top, coke snorting, girlfriend-abusing film star performance is a comical jab at modern celebrities and makes the viewer wonder if DiCaprio isn't doing a send up of himself.

I did have my complaints about Celebrity. Like a lot of recent Woody Allen films, it seemed too episodic in the way it played out, as if it were a series of one act plays glued together into a larger piece. And I also found the fact that every single character in the film is some sort of name actor to be distracting. Apparently, being in a Woody Allen film is such a boon to one's resume, that big time stars have no problem appearing as the taxi driver, the doorman, or the girlfriend with four seconds of onscreen time, just to get in. This was particularly noticeable with Hank Azaria's appearance in a bit part that could have been done by any nobody. It's not like they're aren't tons of struggling actors out there… give them a break.

Despite all that, Celebrity gets my full recommendation. In general, every new Woody Allen film is rather like every new AC/DC album. There's never anything you haven't seen or heard before, but everything is right where it should be.

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