Not many people can claim to have a movie genre with their name on it, especially if they work across a whole range of styles and tones. If you make a serious gangster film, then people say you’ve made a crime drama, not something that’s essentially a Martin Scorsese film; if you make a giant monster movie, then they call it a monster movie (if they’re feeling charitable), not an Ishiro Honda-type picture. But if you make a comedy-drama about the lives of New Yorkers, fairly understated in tone, probably focused on their relationships, and very likely in black and white, it’s probably going to be suggested that you’ve made a Woody Allen movie, no matter whether you’re Noah Baumbach (a director who seems to visit Allenesque territory more than most) or whoever.
One of the things which has come to characterise Allen’s movies in recent years is that the director himself has made fewer and fewer appearances in front of the camera – he’s only been in one of his own films in the last ten years, narration duties aside – and this has led to the slightly odd phenomenon of the Proxy Allen, whereby another performer comes in and plays the character whom Allen would clearly have taken on were he still in his thirties or forties. Sometimes the actor involved is such an obvious substitute for Allen that the results are more or less seamless – for example, Jesse Eisenberg often seems to be doing his take on Allen’s schtick even when he’s appearing in other movies, so for him to do it in, say, Cafe Society, is hardly unexpected. John Cusack’s attempt at the same thing in Bullets over Broadway is likewise not a particular stretch.
However, we are here to talk about Allen’s 1998 film, Celebrity, made during one of the periods where his touch and instinct generally seem to have deserted him a little. The film concerns a couple of characters and their various encounters with celebrity culture of the period. As as not unusual for an Allen movie, there is a not-especially-subtle structure to the story: Lee (Kenneth Branagh) is a writer and journalist, who – perhaps almost despite himself – really aspires to fame and everything associated with it, but finds it always just out of reach as he blunders through a series of farcical encounters with models, actresses, and celebrity authors. Judy Davis plays Lee’s ex-wife Robin, whom he leaves at the start of the film – Judy has no desire to be famous whatsoever, which means she inevitably ends up rising without trace to a genuine degree of prominence (though her own experiences along the way are also fairly absurd).
The Proxy Allen character in this movie, in case you haven’t figured it out, is played by Kenneth Branagh, who in the late 90s seemed to be making a genuine attempt to become a proper Hollywood star (he turned up in Wild Wild West the following year). Now, I like Kenneth Branagh, and enjoy his work as both an actor and a director very much, but I have to say he is not someone who naturally comes to mind as a substitute for Woody Allen. Nevertheless, Branagh shows his quality by turning in a performance which is frequently very funny indeed, hitting just enough of the Allen beats to work, despite the obvious differences in appearance and performing style. The biggest difference, for me, was that Lee is slightly shabby and sleazy in a way that Allen characters generally aren’t – lots of Allen characters behave pretty badly towards women whom they’re involved with, but it’s almost as if the director gives himself a pass. Branagh seems more willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of the character he’s playing, possibly because it isn’t on some level a version of himself.
It’s fairly clear that Allen believes he is making a sophisticated and insightful statement about the nature of fame and our society’s relationship with it, rather than just making a knockabout comedy. This probably explains why the film is in black and white, because nothing projects significant artiness like making a movie in black and white (to Allen’s credit, there is a neat gag about the pretentiousness of directors who still insist on making black-and-white films). On the whole, though, I’m not sure the director succeeds in achieving his ambition.
This is a fairly picaresque movie, and as usual with this sort of project, it stands or falls by the quality of the individual episodes along the way – and, I have to say, it’s a pretty mixed bag. There’s a very funny sequence where Lee is dragged along on a debauched weekend away by a self-absorbed young star (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom he’s trying to sell a script to – at one point Lee tries to hold a script conference in the middle of an orgy – but too often the satire is just too broad to be really effective, or Allen just seems to be indulging himself in the usual themes of how socially awkward guys who can write are sexually irresistible to attractive young women. Some of the comedy is rather broader and coarser than you normally find in an Allen movie, too – there’s a scene in which Bebe Neuwith nearly chokes to death on a banana while giving tips on how to perform oral sex, for instance. Then again, it was the late 90s, and this may just be a sign of the director attempting to adapt his style to a cinematic landscape he was now sharing with people like the Farrelly brothers.
It is terribly late 90s, too – quite apart from Leonardo Dicaprio, whose career was just post-boat at this point, there are also people like Winona Ryder in the cast. There’s probably something slightly ironic about the fact that so many people in minor and supporting roles in this film have since gone on to be genuine celebrities themselves – Debra Messing, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Wright, JK Simmons, and so on.
However the film’s biggest, blackest joke for modern audiences comes towards the end, when Robin finds herself interviewing a succession of prominent New Yorkers in a chic restaurant. The film is about the general worthlessness and corrosive toxicity of celebrity, and its negative effects on society. So it seems somehow utterly appropriate that the only famous person who appears in this movie as himself is the Insane Clown President, Donald Trump, who turns up for an entirely unfunny cameo. On some level, I suppose, we have to concede Allen’s overall point, even if in this case the joke is on the entire world. On the whole, though, a fairly insubstantial and inconsistent movie.