The prodigiously talented and now corrosively bitter Woody Allen was once quoted as saying, "I've always tried to dissuade people and tell them my films are not all autobiographical." Allen's adoring cult has never been convinced of this, of course, because many have never wanted to be. Part of the fun of following Allen's unceasing output (and the reason some people hate his flicks, for the smug cliquishness his urban adventures of the heart exude) is the sense that you are hanging inside his circle, dropping literary and pop-culture references while you gossip about how everyone is either leaping into one ill-advised relationship or emerging from the tragicomic ruins of another.
With Allen's post-Mia Farrow film career, he can no longer protest that audiences and critics are straining to make artist and art inseparable. He has done the job of nosy, overreaching film critics for them with his recent plots and dialogue. Though they vary in style and plot, every frame of such films as Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and Deconstructing Harry chatter and gesticulate across the table from you, explaining that artists create their own moral universe and that it's perfectly permissible for a creative type to pursue his pleasures wherever he may find them.
Many artists took romantic, sexual, and chemical relief in selfish ways long before the Lumiere brothers refined the movie projector. But for those of us who feel as though we've had to dodge a lot of compensatory Soon-Yi rationalization in Allen's most recent scripts to get to the yummy, observant neurosis, his new comedy Celebrity marks a maturation and one of his most strange, somber, and satisfying combinations of pathos and humor.
Crimes and Misdemeanors told two parallel stories, one deadly serious and the other Allen's archetypally hilarious hypochondria shtick. They united with silken melancholy in Allen's last voiceover as he tried to find a life-affirming message in the suicide of a Judaic theologian. That feeling of lingering sadness, where the laughter feels more like relief than pleasure, percolates throughout Celebrity. Shot in low-contrast black-and-white by Sven Nykvist, the film follows the reckless orbits of two very different satellites: celebrity journalist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his probably frigid wife Robin Simon (Judy Davis). He's a pathological womanizer who shattered their marriage by sleeping with her friends; she's a schoolteacher inhibited sexually by a staunch religious upbringing (when asked what Robin thinks about while performing oral sex, she replies, "The Crucifixion"). The film concerns itself with Lee's professional worm-tunneling through the interrelated celebrity worlds of film, fashion, and literature, trying to restart a stalled career as a novelist and attempting to sell a screenplay to some of the famous interviewees he encounters, including a promiscuous aging actress (Melanie Griffith) and a destructive, hedonistic young Hollywood heartthrob (Leonardo DiCaprio in a hilarious braggadocio cameo turn). Robin, meanwhile, enters celebrity through the backdoor when she meets a nice-guy TV executive (Joe Mantegna) in a plastic-surgery office and he begins to work her up from gopher jobs at his network. She also, tentatively, begins to find her way through love again, going so far as to consult a call girl (Bebe Neuwirth) to counsel her on her sexual hang-ups.
Anyone as prolific as Allen is bound to produce movies of vastly different quality, but this unevenness has allowed him the elbow room to combine his filmic Legos to create gaudy cathedrals and snug shacks: depending on where you want to stay defines what subspecies of Allen fan you are. Celebrity leavens the flailing nastiness that made the popular Deconstructing Harry a migraine-inducing experience for some of us with some old-fashioned Allen guffaws. These include rabbis and skinheads noshing together in the green room of a daytime TV talk show and the sight of a desperately horny Lee enduring one pretentious, boring party after another for the chance to bed a beautiful model (Charlize Theron) who's so narcissistic, she can't see three feet in front of her.
The laughs are plentiful, but they become increasingly melancholy because Allen is treating his two unhappy leads with more empathy than he has any of his characters in his last few films. Kenneth Branagh has clearly been instructed to do a Woody Allen impression, which may irritate some (then again, you can argue that everyone in his films does at least a vague Allen impression; hell, these days Allen himself moonlights selling Woody Allen impressions to Dreamworks animated epics). Maybe the writer-director caught sight of himself wooing Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You and was shock-treated into the realization that for the role of a carousing libertine, the baton must be passed. Branagh seems more animated, more present on screen here than he has in a long time: His voiceover observations while at a high school reunion are weakly terrified and an utterly convincing confrontation of mortality. Judy Davis is our reigning whiskey-throated screen goddess of intelligence and valiantly (if unsuccessfully) defended vulnerability. Her best roles involve this struggle to keep her own longings protected from herself and others. She can play it fortissimo for frantic comedy or softly for more poignant expressions of thwarted need; here, unlike in Deconstructing Harry, Allen gives her the room to do both.
The least successful part of Celebrity deals with the "issues" that gather under the enormous circus tent of the title. Although he decorates this glitzy gray world with an amusing melange of cameos from Donald Trump, Joey Buttafuoco, Bruce Jay Friedman, Isaac Mizrahi, and many others, the director never really makes a firm connection between fame and romantic destiny. Branagh and Davis could well experience the same amorous perambulations if they were insurance salespeople or air-conditioning repairers. The closest he comes to actually uniting the two is in Davis' ironic transformation: she goes from a dark-haired, romantically frustrated literature teacher to a blond, fulfilled TV celebrity interviewer. Meanwhile, at the movie's end, the avaricious Woody stand-in Branagh remains stuck, hollow-eyed, on an endless conveyor belt that carries him through a succession of beds. Saddled with what may be a mediocre literary talent but wanting to capture truth and beauty with his novels, he appears fated to constantly pervert truth through his sexual chicanery and know beauty only in the form of young women to be compulsively devoured.
Is the Branagh character in Celebrity just Allen doing public penance? You suspect that, but here Branagh and his writer-director have managed something more haunting than town-square self-flagellation: they've created a man whose appetites will always be greater than his abilities. And for an artist like Woody Allen, who possesses plenty of both, there can be no scarier fate on the planet.
Directed and written by Woody Allen. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, and Famke Janssen. Opens Friday.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.