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Tucson Weekly Ghosts Of Woodies Past

Enough Already With The Mid-Life Crisis Loser Brigade.

By Stacey Richter

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  WHAT'S LEFT TO be said about Woody Allen? Or maybe the question is, "What does Woody have left to say?" He's Mick Jagger doing "Satisfaction" at age 50. He's a food you loved as a kid that tastes sort of disgusting now, though you're still nostalgic for it--like Lucky Charms. He's like a friend who had some amusing idiosyncrasies in his youth, then nurtured his quirks into traits of pure obnoxiousness. He's irritating. He bothers me. He hasn't aged well; or at least, his work hasn't.

His new movie, Celebrity, revisits some classic Woody Allen themes: the abject, random nature of love; the hilarity of sexual acts; the inability of relationships to satisfy; the extreme, unbounded erotic appeal of artists (especially writers!). Celebrity reminded me a bit of the Starr report. It's unrelentingly salacious, and who really cares what these people do in bed? Kenneth Branagh plays Lee Simon, a down-on-his-luck writer who can't find satisfaction in work or love. Branagh does his best Woody Allen impersonation, and boy is this annoying. All the tics, the stammering, the close-to-the-body hand gestures, the whiny New York voice of complaint--it's impressive coming from an Englishman, but it's grating by nature.

Lee is having one of those mid-life crises we've heard so much about, so he divorces his wife and buys a cunning little sportscar to zoom around Manhattan. By vocation, he's a travel writer who does the occasional magazine piece on movie stars. (Of course, he's also working on a novel.) He wears an old army coat. His 1970s feathered haircut is falling into his eyes. His face is doughy. And of course, he's irresistible to gorgeous women half his age, including supermodels and movie stars, who give him the time of day teenage boys in their rooms only dream about beneath the posters of their favorite babe.

In the early scenes, he does an interview with the famous actress Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith), voyaging with her (improbably) to the house where she grew up. She slithers onto her little-girl bed and says, "This is where I watched my body develop." When Lee makes a grab for her, she rebuffs him for a minute, then relents and gives him a blow job.

Lee has shifted into the fast lane. It's everything, all the time. Nicole disappears, but a series of women replace her, and they all seem willing to bed the schleppy, annoying Lee. He meets a supermodel (Charlize Theron) who lets him take her home, then snags a smart, gorgeous girlfriend (Famke Janssen) who supports him unquestioningly. Even Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays a hotel-wrecking bad boy) wants to have an orgy with Lee. Celebrity is like a masturbation fantasy. No one turns him down. If this is what writing unsuccessful novels does, there'd be an awful lot of MFA students with supermodels hanging off their arms.

Meanwhile, Lee's ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis) is also trying to find happiness after the divorce. Allen grants Robin a happier life--she eventually meets a nice guy and finds a glamorous job she enjoys--but he humiliates her first. She has to crawl under the table at an opening when she runs into Lee, and later Allen has her go to a madam for lessons in the art of love. A banana-sucking scene ensues.

There's a mean-spiritedness to Celebrity that's hard to ignore. I think perhaps Allen has become especially difficult for female viewers. We might be willing to believe that one young beauty might be suckered into falling for this annoying guy, but after a whole parade goes for it, it seems that Woody is saying something else about the fair sex--that we're all playthings, or else have shockingly bad taste. And though Judy Davis is infinitely more appealing in this movie than Branagh--as an actor and as her character--there's a kind of desperate quality to her nervous New Yorker character that Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow never had in Allen's previous movies. It's as though instead of seeing the humor in her faults, he's just relishing them.

There are moments, though, when the old Woody resurfaces--when he finds better targets for his meanness, like a self-satisfied book critic, or when he parodies the gala opening for an action film. The meandering, interwoven structure of the film gives it a nice looseness, and Allen even puts in a few relaxed scenes where nothing much is happening--people are just talking, going about their lives. The black-and-white cinematography, by Ingmar Bergman's cameraman Sven Nykvist, also has a loose, off-the-cuff freshness and immediacy that fits Allen's style nicely. It reminds us of better Woody Allen movies past.


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