Lies of the Rich and Famous

Everyone knows we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture. The important question is what effect this has on our values and systems of belief.

The changes are far-reaching. Some sociologists indicate that children today, influenced by the media, quickly divide the world into two classes of people: those who are famous and those who are not. It could even be argued that the American public now considers the president to be our No. 1 celebrity and judges his behavior, not as our Founding Fathers intended, but by standards previously thought appropriate only for Hollywood stars and European royalty.

Over the past two decades writers like Tom Wolfe and the late Christopher Lasch have examined the links between narcissism and our fixation on the famous. This subject matter is no longer new. Anyone addressing it should have something original to contribute.

One would expect Woody Allen to have illuminating and provocative insights to add to the discussion. He has been in the spotlight as an actor-writer-director for more than three decades, and in recent years the dark sides of his personal life have been highly publicized.

Celebrityis his attempt to dramatize the subject, and it's a disappointment. While individual scenes are funny and charming, the overall effect is bitter and cynical. The movie's satiric targets have been more cleverly lampooned by him before, and romantic longing, so touchingly evoked in some of his earlier works, is now confused with lust.

Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is a failed novelist who supports himself by celebrity journalism. Dissatisfied with his prospects, he hopes that divorcing his schoolteacher wife, Robin (Judy Davis), will somehow give him the freedom he needs. Using an episodic structure, the filmmaker follows this newly liberated bachelor through the underside of the glamorous worlds of fashion, publishing, television, and movie-making.

Lee's ethical standards are questionable. The movie opens with him working on a profile of feature-film superstar Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffiths). He implicitly promises to write a favorable piece if she'll agree to read his screenplay.

The journalist degrades himself further when he pushes his movie project on the drug-addled, teenage-heartthrob Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio), who beats his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and gets away with it because he's famous. Lee, like everyone else who wants something from Darrow, shamefully looks the other way.

The failed novelist gets entangled in a trio of complicated women. Allen tries to milk as many laughs as possible from Lee's pursuit of a disco-dancing, health food-addicted supermodel (Charlize Theron). But the jokes turn nasty when he messes up a relationship with a high-powered editor, Bonnie (Famke Janssen), and tries to settle down with a waitress and aspiring actress, Nola (Winona Ryder), who's as narcissistic as any superstar.

At the same time, Lee's discarded wife, Robin, hooks up with a hotshot TV producer, Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), and achieves her own mini-stardom as the host of a local celebrity talk show. The irony of her unexpected fame is heavily underlined, but the movie's attitude toward it is complacent and muddled. Its message seems to be that even though the celebrity culture's values are soul-destroying, failure to achieve recognizable success is worse.

If the viewer takes a step back from Lee's situation, it becomes clear that he's facing a spiritual crisis. His career disappointments have forced him to confront questions about life's meaning he'd prefer to avoid. Allen, however, also wants to duck the same issues. Instead he takes cheap shots at the Catholic Church, the only other value system apart from celebrity worship presented in the movie.

Before achieving TV talk-show fame, Robin goes on a religious retreat in hopes of easing the emotional pain of her divorce. The featured attraction is a priest, Father Gladden, who's built up a following on TV. Allen depicts him as a minor-league celebrity whose level of spiritual discourse is characterized by questions like: “Was Elvis more popular than the Pope?”

Allen's point is that the Church has been just as corrupted by celebrity-culture values as the rest of society. This is demonstrably false. In Father Gladden, Allen has created a straw man with which to beat the Church. For better or for worse, Catholics have no evangelists with the celebrity starpower of Protestants like Billy Graham or Pat Robertson.

Frederico Fellini's 1962 classic, La Dolce Vita,tackles the same subject as Celebrityin a more imaginative and thought-provoking manner. It too chronicles the picaresque adventures of a spiritually lost journalist, both fascinated and trapped by the celebrity culture of his time. By the movie's end, its main character, like Lee, is more bewildered than saved.

Fellini also deals with the Catholic Church at the margins of his story, but, unlike Allen, he treats its faith with respect, hinting at the possibility of a moral center for his main character if only he would turn to it. As a result, the audience is left with a faint sense of hope in the midst of all the vanity and despair.

Allen is no longer the witty, wise, and somewhat melancholy filmmaker who made the likes of Annie Halland Hannah and Her Sisters.It's as if the negative fallout from his own celebrityhood has caused a hardening of his creative arteries, and he's run out of things to say. Celebrityis more an artifact of our narcissistic culture than a critical comment on it.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer currently writes from Paris.

Celebrity is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.