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By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  Woody Allen's films are like the Italian railway system under Mussolini--reliable, predictable, on-time and under-budget. Walking into a Woody Allen movie (every year like clockwork), you can pretty much rest assured what's going to greet you on the screen. The main character will be a neurotic New York writer. The loose plot will involve many and sundry sexual peccadilloes. There will be plenty of overlapping dialogue and some recycled Borscht Belt humor. The cast list will include half the actors in Hollywood--all slumming for the art house crowd before returning to their next million dollar paycheck. Well fear not, Woody Allen fans, his latest, Celebrity, is all that and more.

The requisite ensemble cast this time around centers on Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), a neurotic New York writer. It's no secret that Woody Allen has always cast himself as the protagonist (in person and personality) in his films. Ever since Allen became too wizened and Yoda-like to play himself on screen, though, he's hired a short list of talented actors to perform the task. Branagh obliges, dropping his Irish accent and adopting a Woody Allen impression that is as uncanny as it is annoying. Every Allenesque hem and haw is present in Branagh's flustered delivery.

Also headlining the ensemble is Judy Davis (who, I swear to God, I thought was Catherine O'Hara the entire movie) as Lee's brittle ex-wife Robin. Both, it seems, are middle-age crazy. Lee is fed up with his dead-end career as a magazine writer; he dreams of writing the great American novel but is peddling a generic action movie script instead. Robin is bored with her life as a mousy schoolteacher; she wants to break free of the chains that her strict upbringing and young marriage forced upon her. Once separated, the Simons go their separate ways (in more ways than one).

Robin hooks up with a nice-guy TV producer (Joe Mantegna) and spreads her wings as a small-time TV hostess. Lee fritters his life away carrying on affairs with a parade of nubile, young babes (Melanie Griffith, Charlize Theron, Famke Janssen, Winona Ryder). Why are all these hot prospects throwing themselves at a divorced, middle-aged, ill-spoken schlub? Let's just say that Woody Allen has never been good at keeping his fantasies private.

The backdrop for all this melancholy mid-life revelry is the heart of fame-hungry Manhattan. At least this environment provides Allen with some fresh meat. The idea is that we (or at least these characters) live in a world where fame strikes us all sooner or later. Andy Warhol's tired old axiom is in overdrive thanks to today's media-obsessed culture. In Allen's world, everyone from your plastic surgeon to your minister is basking in his 15 minutes, getting interviewed on "Oprah" and posing for People Magazine. To drive home the point, Leonardo DiCaprio wanders through as a bad boy movie star, Charlize Theron appears as a "polysexual" supermodel and Isaac Mizrahi cameos as a pretentious painter.

Allen does have fun poking holes in the cult and culture of celebrity. (A daytime talkshow in which skinheads and rabbis mingle nonchalantly at the backstage snack table waiting for the fireworks to begin on camera, is sharply funny). ... But, Woody, if you really feel the need to air your sexual obsessions in public, may I suggest Penthouse Forum.

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