Woody Allen's 27th film marks the first time he's shot in black-and-white since Shadows and Fog, a film even the Woodman's most ardent fans would be hard pressed to revisit. The director doesn't appear as an actor in Celebrity, which is a catastrophic decision here because Kenneth Branagh, in the lead role of journalist Lee Simon, does a baffling, distracting Woody Allen imitation that seems as uncomfortable for the actor as it is for the audience. Simon is the kind of character we've seen Allen play for years: a self-absorbed, insecure, stammering neurotic who inexplicably manages to bed or nearly bed a bevy of beautiful women, including book editor Famke Janssen, actress/waitress Winona Ryder, and supermodel Charlize Theron (that any man should have such options!). Why any of these women would waste their time with the wholly uninteresting Simon is anyone's guess, for he's one of Allen's least likeable creations. In Allen's world, solipsism can be made lovable, but Simon's angst isn't coupled with the requisite wit or intellectual charm necessary to overcome his glaring flaws; he comes off as simply a charmless jerk.
Celebrity is intended to be a look at the nature of fame in all its guises, from movie-star glitter to tabloid notoriety. Joey Buttafuoco has a fleeting cameo, and a scene in a television green room perfectly captures the 'Entertainment Tonight' world we live in, as a Mafioso and some Klansman discuss the William Morris Agency. Simon is our Mastroianni-like guide through the city's glamorous worlds of film, fashion, publishing, television and theatre. Melanie Griffith is the first celeb on display, well cast as buxom, pampered silver-screen goddess Nicole Oliver. Simon conducts an interview at Oliver's childhood home and tries to seduce her in her girlhood bed. While his attempt at intercourse is rebuffed, Oliver grants him a consolation prize of oral sex, cooing that 'my body belongs to my husband. What I do from the neck up is a different story.' Following this brief encounter, Simon meets ravishing blonde supermodel Charlize Theron, who demands to drive his precious Aston Martin and declares herself 'polymorphically perverse'-every part of her body gives her pleasure. This turns out to be the best sequence in the film, for Theron perfectly captures the frivolous essence of the supermodel persona, and is so dazzling to the eye that Simon remarks, 'If the universe has any meaning at all, I'm looking at it.' Celebrity's only other memorable scene features Leonardo DiCaprio (shrewdly cast before Titanic hit) as a hot young star in mid-tantrum as he destroys his room at the Stanhope Hotel while berating his gorgeous-young-thing girlfriend (Gretchen Mol). Simon arrives in the midst of this chaos to pitch a script he wants DiCaprio to star in. After a drunken romp to Atlantic City and back, Simon ends up reluctantly, very reluctantly, joining DiCaprio in a foursome with Mol and another woman. He can hardly perform under such conditions, but, hilariously, manages to keep up his pitch of the script, even while DiCaprio humps away next to him.
Aside from Theron's and DiCaprio's quite funny scenes, Celebrity mostly feels shapeless, tired and dull and, at 114 minutes, is also 20 minutes longer than Allen's usual. This wouldn't be a problem if the jokes were funnier or if the characters were engaging, but Celebrity wears out its welcome long before it fizzles out. We have only Sven Nykvist's terrific black-and-white cinematography and a bevy of New York landmarks, including the restaurants Elaine's and Jean-Georges and the Ziegfeld Theater to distract us. The always reliable Judy Davis is on hand in her fourth film for Allen as Robin Simon, Lee's brittle, often hysterical ex-wife, but her character is a tiresome echo of her better roles in Deconstructing Harry and Husbands and Wives. Robin achieves fame in her own right when she ultimately marries a nice-guy television producer (Joe Mantegna) who oversees her transformation into a svelte on-air personality who chats with the likes of Donald Trump (appearing as himself).
Among the other players, Winona Ryder, the actress in the cast with whom Branagh has the most chemistry, makes a fetching but too brief appearance as the self-styled 'whore of Tribeca' who gives Simon the spurning he richly deserves. And Bebe Neuwirth plays a hooker who gives Davis an oral sex lesson with a banana that doesn't quite come off, though Davis brings down the house when she says she usually thinks of 'the Crucifixion' while performing the said act. And Dylan Baker is glimpsed briefly as a priest, which I found to be an unintentionally chilling role after watching his brilliant turn as a pedophile in Todd Solondz's forthcoming Happiness. Has it really been nearly 20 years since Allen's valentine to his beloved city, the black-and-white, Gershwin-filled masterpiece Manhattan? Sadly, Celebrity is as empty as the characters on display here desperately seeking their 15 minutes of fame, and those that obsessively follow their every move.