NEW YORK — It's ironic that Woody Allen has made a movie called "Celebrity," since his own relationship with fame has been complicated, to say the least.
He's a highly successful filmmaker and comic actor. Yet his career has been dogged by widely publicized scandal involving ugly charges about his family life, which some of his recent movies ("Mighty Aphrodite," "Deconstructing Harry") have addressed in thinly veiled form, calling into question his longtime insistence that private and public lives are separate domains that shouldn't be confused by gossip-hungry audiences.
Given these circumstances, one might expect an Allen film about fame to rank with his most complex and thoughtful works. In the largest irony of all, though, "Celebrity" (opening Nov. 20) turns out to be one of his thinnest and tinniest pictures, rarely probing beneath the glitzy surface of its star-studded story.
Kenneth Branagh plays the protagonist who glues the loosely assembled plot together: a journalist who crosses the paths of various famous folks, partly through the nature of his occupation, and partly because of his own fascination with high-profile personalities.
These encounters sabotage his marriage to an attractive schoolteacher (Judy Davis) while tangling up his life with relationships that never seem as fulfilling as he thought they'd be. Among the objects of his shifting affections are Melanie Griffith as an oversexed actress, Winona Ryder as a seductive new friend, Charlize Theron as a slim-lined supermodel, and Leonardo DiCaprio as a Hollywood star who might help our hero's career if he's treated with enough flattery and indulgence.
Allen is fond of imitating the styles of directors he admires, echoing Federico Fellini in "Stardust Memories" and Ingmar Bergman in "Shadows and Fog," for instance. He seems to be taking Robert Altman as his model this time. Altman pictures are extremely difficult to pull off, however, as Altman himself has found out over the years. The slippery superficialities of "Celebrity" are only a dim reflection of the all-too-human truths found in "Nashville" or "A Wedding" or "The Player," and the excellent acting of Altman's best work is badly parodied by Branagh's performance here, so steeped in Allen's own mannerisms that one wonders why Woody didn't simply play the part himself.
"Celebrity" had its American premiere at this fall's New York Film Festival, marking Allen's second appearance in that prestigious event and his first in the coveted opening-night time slot. The picture provided enough scattershot laughs to satisfy some festival-goers, and others were captivated by cinematographer Sven Nykvist's images of Manhattan, with all the crisp beauty (and unrealistic romanticism) that Allen habitually brings to his visions of the city he loves.
But while it's true that "Celebrity" is not without pleasures, they aren't nearly substantial enough to rank the movie anywhere near Allen's best. Its ambitions far outstrip its achievements.
* Opens Nov. 20. Rated R; contains sexual situations and vulgar language. E-mail David Sterritt at firstname.lastname@example.org