I can’t really remember the last time I saw a movie with this much biting satire and brilliance that was utterly excruciating half the time. I’ve generally hated Kenneth Branagh. He’s always struck me as amazingly pretentious while concentrating on the surface tics and mannerisms of a character at the expense of depth or heart. Nothing seems to come from deep within. I had changed my mind after “Gingerbread Man”, but then again, he was playing a jerk. If you’ve been waiting for Bard-boy to do his Woody Allen imitation, you are in luck.
The core of “Celebrity” is the breakup of Lee (Kenneth Branagh) and Robin Simon (Judy Davis). A travel writer, Lee attends his high school reunion, inciting reflection on his life. He freaks out. Lee doesn’t want to be married to a schoolteacher while writing travel articles. He leaves Robin to work on his novels and write entertainment journalism. An entertainment journalist is like a parent. You need neither aptitude nor competence to become one. He works through his bizarre encounters with various celebrities that leave him much the worse for wear.
Robin hits bottom after the divorce. After making the rounds through various forms of therapy, she flirts with cosmetic surgery when she has a chance encounter with a television producer played by Joe Mantegna. Her life takes a very different path from there.
What is Allen trying to accomplish here? While in “Deconstructing Harry” he sort of explained himself while flipping off his critics, this picture obliquely explores the nature of celebrity while flipping off the most aspects of the entertainment industry. It’s too bad he couldn’t call the film “Starf**kers”, an equally appropriate name.
Lee encounters a star actress (Melanie Griffith), a supermodel (Charlize Theron), and a hot young Hollywood star (Leonardo DiCaprio). These vignettes leave him bruised. In the process, Allen demonstrates the horror of the people our society chooses to celebrate, and the kind of behavior we’re willing to except from them. DiCaprio’s actor is coked to the gills and out of his mind for his entire ten minute piece (as if Leo has some flipping off of his own to do). The supermodel is a sociopath in heat and the actress seems to have a definition of sex not unlike that of our sitting president.
Lee and Robin take separate paths through show business and occasionally meet again by chance, twice in a movie theatre. The first time, Lee is cruising to success as his ex-wife is pulling her life together. The second time, his wife, now everything he could have wanted, is the object of attention. Lee’s problem is that he never seems to learn. A good writer is usually a great liar, but he’s mainly lying to himself. He keeps dumping women for someone younger and cuter. Lee’s too busy looking for a fantasy.
Robin succeeds by grasping what’s in front of her. Though at times she too needs a reality check, she takes the opportunities for what they are and works with them. The only decent characters in the film are the ones that can ignore the distractions of, well, ‘celebrity’. The others are sad, pathetic, or demonic.
Speaking of demonic, Branagh and Davis seem to be portraying younger versions of Allen and Mia Farrow. Davis, thankfully, doesn’t take it LITERALLY. Branagh reproduces Allen’s vocal inflections. The problem is that he doesn’t possess Allen’s affableness to counteract the non-stop whining. After a few minutes of this, I was ready to claw my own eyes out. I only stayed with the film because of Davis and the fierceness of the writing. Allen doesn’t let himself off the hook, either. One character mocks the effects of viewing a film at a press screening (like I did) instead of a real audience while ridiculing the pretensiousness of filmmakers who insist on shooting their films in black and white (like this one). If I could have just watched the Davis scenes, I would have been happier, but Allen needed a stand-in and a patsy, so we got Branagh. His fate could have been tragic if he didn’t earn it.