I'm not a fan of books-on-tape but I love plays-on-tape, particularly Shakespeare, particularly BBC Radio Shakespeare. I've listened over and over again to Hamlet and King Lear, for example, and the high point of each for me is the performance of Kenneth Branagh. He makes a great Hamlet, a great Edmond.
"I just turned 40. I don't want to look up at 50 and find I measured out my fucking life with a coffee spoon."
He's does not make a great Woody Allen. Unfortunately in Celebrity he succumbs to Woodyitis, that peculiar disease which infects stars of Woody Allen movies. The shoulders hunch, the voice stutters and whines, a fatigue jacket is possibly worn. They can't ask anyone out for a drink, they have to ask, "You-you wanna go for a drink?" It's how Woody believes we all talk but it's getting old. A lot about Woody's movies are getting old. Maybe I've seen too many of them. Our relationship has gone on too long and I know all his bad habits. Oh, this bit again. Oh, he's doing that. I wonder what happened to the funny guy I used to date.
Celebrity should be perfect for Allen a chance to mock our celebrity-grubbing age but he merely skirts this theme. Instead the movie is about a couple, Lee and Robin Simon (Branagh and Judy Davis), who get divorced and try to find new relationships. He's in the middle of a mid-life crisis and wants to make sure he doesn't, as he says, "measure out my fucking life with a coffee spoon." To some extent he succeeds. A free-lance writer, he gets a blow-job from movie star Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith) and parties with a supermodel (Charlize Theron), but ultimately he's too inhibited for the wild life. Brash movie star Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio) suggests an orgy but Lee is too uptight and spends most of his time trying to pitch his script to Darrow. It's supposed to be funny Look, Darrow is fucking that girl while Lee is talking bank robbery scenes! but it's just tiresome. It even ruins our sense of Darrow. A spoiled child star, he comes off as infinitely patient when dealing with the annoying Lee. Who's the spoiled one here? Who's the child? When Lee does find the right woman (Famke Janssen as the sexiest editor who ever existed), he blows it, opting, at the last minute, for a fling with too-young Winona Ryder, who of course dumps him. Branagh, all thin lips and pasty face, whines and frets throughout until you just want to slug him.
Robin, meanwhile, is neurotic to the point of certifiable. She stutters and twitches and occasionally screeches. She gets involved with a too-good-to-be-true TV producer (Joe Mantegna) and nearly destroys their relationship before accepting her good fortune. She evolves from a teacher to behind-the-scenes TV work to on-air talent, interviewing celebs at Elaine's and the like. In the process she becomes a celebrity herself. There's ambiguity to this transformation a sense that her true self is being buried under artifice but much of the ambiguity is lost when compared with the flailing, pathetic Branagh character, not to mention her former neurotic self.
A common slam against Allen is that he's not making funny pictures anymore that he's given up comedy for drama but that's not really true. He actually tries to be funny in Celebrity but can't seem to do it. During the break-up scene, Robin wants to know if Lee's had any affairs. She tells him that she just wants to clear the air. "I won't get angry. We're just clearing the air," she says repeatedly. So he tells her. And she gets angry.
What happened to the funny guy I used to date?
One line I chuckled over. At an art opening, a supermodel is approached by a star-struck, middle-aged couple, and the woman asks for an autograph. "I use your exercise tape all the time," she says. Her husband, equally rapt, chimes in, "So do I," to which his wife sardonically replies, "But I exercise to it."
Otherwise there's a stale air to this movie. We're trapped in Woody's mind and I'm beginning to find it stultifying.
September 18, 1999
© 1999 Erik Lundegaard