Woody Allen and the casting directors who serve him are geniuses at filling his films with players who occupy that desirable display space where talent and buzz converge. Name the rising movie star of the moment, the cultural bigwig without mention of whom no Sunday edition of The New York Times is complete, and odds are the director has just asked that personage to appear in his next, as-yet-untitled project. Odds are, too, that the personage has agreed, flattered out of all proportion to be offered membership in the I’m-working-for-Woody-but-don’t-know- anything-about-the-movie-except-for-my-lines club.
In Celebrity, Allen’s surest instincts about the title subject are at work in the vast, high-profile cast he assembled to act out his complicated and ambivalent notions of the world into which the filmmaker has pitched himself with equal parts fervor and loathing for more than three decades. This big, muddled, contemporary variation on La Dolce Vita, shot in breathtaking black and white by Sven Nykvist, contrasts the up-escalator and down-escalator rides of journalist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh, out-Woodying Woody in mannerisms, but why?), and his neurotic ex-wife, Robin (Allen’s favorite wounded she-wolf, Judy Davis), a former literature teacher. Lee, while mourning his inability to write a novel, convinces himself of the teeny-potatoes importance of crafting celebrity profiles and eagerly — nay, pathetically — soaks up the low-watt light thrown off by the Beautiful People he pursues. Robin, meanwhile, shakily recovering from her divorce, meets a menschy producer (Joe Mantegna, representing, in the Allen cosmos, vibrant non-Jewish ethnicity), who offers her work (she becomes a TV celebrity) and love that fills her with self-confidence.
In between, Allen does his best show tricks. Lee flirts and hustles through an on-set interview with a glamorous movie star (Melanie Griffith), and in his private life, too, he’s a horndog drawn to beauties played by Charlize Theron, Winona Ryder, and — pulling off one terrific breakup scene — Famke Janssen. Robin interviews a hooker (Bebe Neuwirth) and requests a lesson in oral sex, resulting in a gratuitously humiliating ”funny” bit in which the women practice on bananas. (In another extended, uncharitable episode, Lee attends a high school reunion, apparently so Allen can have a cheap laugh about aging alumni.)
I’ve saved the old fox’s slyest casting coup, however, for last: Leonardo DiCaprio plays a bratty, destructive young star who, when Lee chases him down to pitch a screenplay idea, has just wrecked his hotel room and fought with his girlfriend. And in every minute of DiCaprio’s participation — some 10 to 20 in all — he juices Celebrity with a power surge that subsides as soon as he exits. Leo was not, of course, quite the worldwide phenomenon he is now when he took the role; still, he was definitely a hot commodity, a face to watch, a powerful new player, whatever it is magazine journalists like to say. (That he’s also an actor of considerable, refined talent is a plus.) Woody knew this and used Leo’s celebrity magic. Leo knew of the cachet of a Woody Allen production and used Woody’s celebrity magic. Celebrity benefits from the alchemy, briefly and mysteriously, then becomes hungry again. Isn’t that always the case? B-