Shooting Stars 

Woody Allen delivers his best movie in years with "Celebrity"

Woody Allen delivers his best movie in years with "Celebrity"

In its sorriest excuse for a cover story since Jenny McCarthy, Rolling Stone recently asked actors, musicians, and TV personalities for their pronouncements on the Clinton scandal. The magazine got exactly what it deserved—i.e., the kind of vapid, uninformed “commentary” that makes your average Jay Leno monologue sound like Firing Line. But you can’t fault the rag for developing such a stupid idea on its own. When did we confer credibility on a pop star’s every utterance? About the time their lives and faces started to be covered so ruthlessly that they seem more familiar than our neighbors’.

Ironically, by addressing the lives of the gilded few, Woody Allen has made his loosest, least insular movie in ages. Celebrity, Allen’s 29th feature as writer and director, shuttles back and forth between a hapless schlub of a celebrity journalist (Kenneth Branagh) and his timid schoolteacher ex-wife (Judy Davis). Outlined in stark black-and-white by the great Sven Nykvist, their reversals of professional and romantic fortune play out against a world in which fame is heaped indiscriminately upon anyone who appears on TV—priests, models, bad-boy actors, even the skinheads who sit munching bagels in a network green room with some Black Muslims and rabbis.

If you’d all but given up on Allen’s films as of late for their sourness and their appalling treatment of women, Celebrity is downright touchy-feely compared to the likes of Deconstructing Harry. His fellatio fixation hasn’t subsided, as Melanie Griffith shows up just long enough to prove. (At this point in his career, Allen can lay claim to the title The 400 Blows.) But the coarseness of his recent work has given way to a kind of happy, actively engaged vulgarity. Even his obligatory hooker (Bebe Neuwirth, in a riotous cameo) comes across as an affectionate stock figure, like a Preston Sturges wardheeler.

Using another of his clear-the-Rolodex casts, Allen gets startlingly good performances from actors who haven’t been used all that well lately. Kenneth Branagh’s decision to mimic Allen’s every flutter and stammer may be questionable, but he has a bearish, shaggy quality that seems not only amusing but right. As an openly unfaithful actress, Winona Ryder does her most appealing, least mannered work since Little Women; and as a good-hearted tabloid-TV producer, Joe Mantegna exhibits great charm. As always, Judy Davis does some wonderful bits of neurotic business, even though Allen keeps casting her in Julie Kavner roles. And there are funny cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, and Andre Gregory, who plays “one of those pretentious assholes who shoots his films in black and white.”

That’s a good joke, and there are more—including the very first sequence, a strong contender for the quintessential Woody Allen moment. Still, Allen makes his sharpest, funniest points with the real-life celebs who turn up as window-dressing. It isn’t every day you see Erica Jong and Donald Trump billed alongside Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco. But as Celebrity makes clear, it could be.

—Jim Ridley

Stained sheets

Unmade Beds, the latest “let’s talk about sex” indie, comes with a unique twist: The talkers are real people playing themselves in a scripted mock-doc based on their experiences of taking out personal ads. Still, one might wonder: To what do we owe the pleasure of this burgeoning subgenre, one predicated on stripping bare our “friends and neighbors”? Is it a function of our increasingly clinical culture? Or those grueling work weeks that encourage us to schedule our fucking for maximum efficiency (while at a movie, even)? Is it our dual desire for safe titillation and cinematic “realness,” fulfilled here through reenacted peeping?

Maybe it’s just the vicarious kick that comes from seeing that our own sex lives aren’t nearly so weird as those of the miserable souls onscreen—in this case, four unhappily single New Yorkers who spend six months obsessing over how to find a bedmate. Brenda Monte is an aging ex-lap dancer with an ailing poodle and an unpaid mortgage, a gab-gifted gal who opines that “dick is easy to get. You can reach out anytime and grab a dick. What I need is cash.” (Notably, she’s the only one of the four who gets what she wants.)

Michael De Stephano is 5 feet, 4 inches and self-conscious about it, rationalizing that “if I was one of those bullshitters I’d be getting [laid] regularly myself.” Mikey Russo is a pudgy misogynist with a gaudy love pad who claims to pen screenplays for “independent companies” such as Miramax and Sony Classics. (This guy wouldn’t be caught dead at a bonafide indie like Unmade Beds.) And Aimee Copp, the film’s most compelling character, is a smart and vivacious 28-year-old who refuses to believe the influence of her 225 pounds upon her unmarried status—until a heartbreaking scene in which she tearfully laments that her weight will likely prevent her from ever having a 50th wedding anniversary.

British filmmaker Nicholas Barker wrings a truly riveting narrative out of all this harsh reality, his four lonelyhearts almost appearing to talk amongst themselves. Brenda, for instance, unwittingly bears out Mikey’s view of women as golddiggers by marrying an immigrant stranger for money. And the vertically challenged Michael seems to neglect Aimee as a potential partner, not accepting the fact that body size, his own included, is no big deal.

In between confessional vignettes that are often painfully hilarious (or just plain painful), Barker trains his camera on the drab details of our own private soap operas: shots of endless bathroom and beauty products, a dripping water faucet, the long and winding road as seen from the backseat of a cab. Even those happily partnered will find it hard not to relate.

—Rob Nelson

Kiss of death

It’s so easy to pick out the flaws in Meet Joe Black, Martin Brest’s remake of the 1934 movie Death Takes a Holiday, that it takes a special effort to look beyond them. The film tests viewers’ patience with its bloated three-hour running time, but hidden in the puff pastry are two great performances, some incisive writing, and a few honest tears.

The movie starts off snappily as media tycoon Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) prepares for his 65th birthday party with his two daughters. He’s been hearing voices in his head, and in the middle of a family dinner, they resolve themselves into the figure of Death, incarnate in a young man’s body. During this first meeting, Brest lingers agonizingly on every word of dialogue, inserting three reaction shots to every one spoken line. Worse, a clock ticks loudly in the background, a detail that I’m sure Brest meant to symbolize Parrish’s life slipping away—but in practice reminds the audience how long the scene takes to end.

Parrish’s demise is delayed while Death indulges in a little human experience, taking the name Joe Black. While he waits to die, Parrish endures an attempted coup at his business and watches his younger daughter (Claire Forlani) fall in love with Joe.

Brad Pitt plays Joe, and his take on this allegorical figure is as entertaining as it is unusual. He revels in the sensual and relates to his human hosts with stiff politeness; when provoked or mocked, he gives a little half-smile that seems to say, “You’re mine in the end.” Hopkins, meanwhile, does distraction better than almost any other actor, infusing throwaway syllables like “yeah,” “OK,” and “stuff” with the sense that he’s brooding on mortality.

Fixing Meet Joe Black’s problems would only require excising two-thirds of the pauses and cutaways during conversations and eliminating some repetitive elements. Then the tear-jerker ending, with its long goodbyes and fireworks, might not seem so excessive. But since Martin Brest not only directed but also produced, there was no one to suggest the needed cuts and changes. Meet Joe Black is good enough, as it stands, to find a large audience that will appreciate its actors and emotional themes; at its ideal fighting weight, however, it might have been a contender for greatness.

—Donna Bowman

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