The fame game

Film byJonathan Romney

Everything you really need to know about Woody Allen and celebrity you can get from Barbara Kopple's recent documentary Wild Man Blues, which followed Allen as he reluctantly toured the world with his jazz band. Allen kvetched about the showers and the sandwiches, grimaced behind the backs of adoring Venetian matrons and then returned to New York, where his nonagenarian parents put him firmly in his place. He'd have done better, they carp, if he'd become a pharmacist. Allen himself couldn't have devised a more deflating portrait of a star cushioned by fame, sneering defensively at his admirers, but finally humbled by a different kind of infantilisation. Wild Man Blues was all the more telling in that it coincided with Deconstructing Harry, Allen's own scathing picture of the kind of person we imagine him to be - a writer in the Philip Roth mould, recruiting people from his own life as characters for his novels but signally lacking insight into his own nature.

These two films offer such a comprehensive impression of Allen's attitudes to public life and the media that his latest, entitled Celebrity, looked certain to be anti-climactic. It's worse than that. For a start, you could always count on an Allen film clocking in neatly around the 100-minute mark. This one runs to 113; that may seem a niggling complaint, but it's a sign that he's not pulling his strokes with quality control. This is the first Woody Allen film that's made me check my watch throughout.

Celebrity reeks of world-loathing as much as - but not nearly as compellingly as - the bilious Stardust Memories (1980). It's a journey through a bright, noisy funfair of worldliness, undertaken in parallel by a divorced couple, Lee (Kenneth Branagh), a writer, and the lapsed academic Robin (Judy Davis). Lee wants to be a serious writer but spends his time writing intimate personality profiles of the Vanity Fair ilk. He gets closer to the stars than most European profile-writers, allotted their 60 minutes, might find credible. He falls into bed with the actress Nicole (Melanie Griffith), has a wretched night out with a supermodel (Charlize Theron), then crashes his implausibly flashy car into a shop window and resists being inveigled into several-way sex by the star brat Brandon (the film's scoop - Leonardo di Caprio parodying his spoilt-puppy image). Meanwhile, Robin (Davis mangling herself into her inimitable angst-knots) passes through several shades of torment before reinventing herself as a glib daytime TV personality reporting on Donald Trump's dining habits.

What are Celebrity's great revelations? Only that Allen can still be unpleasantly dyspeptic, is still seriously hung up on Fellini's La Dolce Vita and is pretty much a write-off as a social satirist. Branagh's Lee, blabbering and twitching in a grotesque and distracting impersonation of Allen himself, gets sucked into the whirlpool of glitz in too many repetitive sequences. Allen has nothing to say about the shallow and famous, other than: "So beautiful, so rich - yet look how they waste their time!" He doesn't present their world as anything genuinely novel or seductive - it's all shorthand to justify the morally instructive spectacle of smart people such as Lee and Robin frittering away their talent.

Allen is no more optimistic or insightful about contemporary appetites for culture and spirit - religion, therapy and the literary world all get carved up in mechanical fashion. Lee is made to look as dopey in his airier aspirations as he is when drawn to the carnival. He falls for a bohemian princess - Winona Ryder, who must get sick of being cast as wafty and vaguely cerebral. She's another version of Allen's precocious, brainy dreamgirls who are best left alone, like Rain in Husbands and Wives. Then there's the novel that Lee finally writes, which his angry girlfriend (an incisive Famke Janssen) throws off the back of a boat. The old paper- fluttering-in-the-wind routine - can this wash any more? Is it pedantic to object that no sane writer today has only one draft of a novel? Lee can surely afford a laptop, or did he file all those profile pieces by carrier pigeon? The scene is a romantic cliche exposed by sloppy elderly thinking.

This impression of half-baked thought comes across in a formless succession of ugly routines that are less trenchant about fashionable emptiness than Brett Easton Ellis's Glamorama (which at least tackles the abyss from the inside) and less energetically silly than Robert Altman's much-maligned Pret a Porter. Some sequences - at a cosmetician's, at various media beanfeasts - strain for a busy simultaneity of impressions in the manner of Fellini and Altman, but they're just blustery, as if Allen can't really stand the noise. Little is really said about the media other than that things get jumbled up in frivolous promiscuity. The single good gag is a TV chat show that programmes rabbis, Nazis and gangsters together - "Where are the bagels? The skinheads ate all the bagels already?"

Most of this is just deadening but the film becomes objectionable in its peevish handling of ordinary people. Lee attends a class reunion - that stalest chestnut of American social insight - and is shocked to see how staid and middle-aged everyone seems. Look, there's even a pony-tailed goon singing "The Impossible Dream"! It's meant to be Lee's moment of self-knowledge, as he realises that he's no spring chicken to be running around with club kids. But the scene reeks of distaste for the everyday.

If all you find is bourgeois stagnation on the one hand and tinselly neurosis on the other, what's there to do but retreat into contemplation of your own inner depths (which is more or less what the writer ends up doing in Deconstructing Harry)? You can only hope that the older and wiser Lee succeeds in this better than his creator, because Allen's creative depths seem to have dried up for the moment.

"Celebrity" (18) plays at various London cinemas

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote