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Having expelled the bilious Deconstructing Harry from his system, Woody Allen attempts to reclaim the high ground with Celebrity, a comedy-drama about fame and its discontents. Although considerably more palatable than its rancid predecessor, Allen’s latest requires viewers to clear two nearly insurmountable obstacles—the writer-director’s hypocritical moralizing and Kenneth Branagh’s ventriloquistic performance. Not many, I fear, will prove equal to the task.

Celebrity begins and ends with shots of the word “HELP” writ large in the sky over New York City. Should anyone fail to grasp the symbolic import of this plea, Allen’s dialogue underscores its significance with sledgehammer delicacy. We’re informed that one can “learn a lot about a society by the people it chooses to celebrate,” specifically our own culture, which “took a wrong turn somewhere.” Allen’s episodic narrative about a divorced couple wending through Manhattan’s voguish high life presumes to chart that wrong turn and diagnose the culture’s pathologies. To no one’s surprise, his findings indicate that fame breeds vanity, self-indulgence, narcissism, callousness, materialism, faithlessness, and self-delusion. Given his off-screen culpability on the majority of these counts, Allen’s censorious tone strikes me as ill-advised.

In the two decades since his masterpieces Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories, Allen’s muse has gradually, inexorably abandoned him. Granted creative freedom unmatched by that of any contemporary commercial filmmaker, he’s produced a depressingly piddling body of work. Could any other director have survived a run of artistically and commercially profitless movies such as September, Another Woman, Alice, Shadows and Fog, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Mighty Aphrodite? (Can you even remember which you’ve seen and which you’ve missed?) Allen’s recent films are as arbitrary and pitiful as a spastic’s twitches; he makes them for no apparent reason other than to make them. The notable exception is Deconstructing Harry, a contemptuous response to the Mia/Soon-Yi/Dylan scandals as blatantly unrepentant as Clinton’s four-minute television “apology.” If you think I’m a scumbag from what you’ve read in the tabloids, the Woodman seemed to be taunting, wait till you get a load of this!

Allen once created his own stars (Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Mariel Hemingway), but as his work has declined, it has become increasingly populated with established and nascent somebodies. Nanoseconds after performers make their first significant media blips, Allen’s casting director comes on the line offering cameo roles (generally thankless) to confirm their imminent stardom (Edward Norton, Natalie Portman and Billy Crudup in the neo-musical Everyone Says I Love You; Elisabeth Shue, Tobey Maguire, and Stanley Tucci in Deconstructing Harry). In what is obviously an intended irony, Celebrity is Allen’s biggest luminary bash to date, a pageant of major players (Branagh, Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Judy Davis, Winona Ryder), hot newcomers (Hank Azaria, Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron, Sam Rockwell, Gretchen Mol), nonthespian notables (Isaac Mizrahi, Anthony Mason, Erica Jong), showbiz spawns (Kate Burton, Daisy Prince), and media perennials (Donald Trump, Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco). It’s difficult to place much credence in a voice cautioning against the corrupting blandishments of fame when it can barely make itself heard above the cacophony of trendy personages at the party its owner is hosting.

Speaking of voices, this time out Allen does not appear onscreen, but his persona has been grafted onto Branagh, who plays Lee Simon, an archetypal latter-day Woodman character. In portraying this self-justifying weasel—a double-dealing womanizer and hack journalist with artistic pretensions—Branagh has been directed to ape Allen’s spoken and physical mannerisms: stuttering and stammering, delivering lines peppered with the writer-director’s trademark inflections and pet catchwords (“terrific”), talking with his hands, and shrugging his shoulders. This deli double of Jewish corned beef and Irish ham is unsettling and distracting. Allen’s hovering presence as Branagh’s puppeteer prevents us from accepting Lee as anything more than a feat of mimicry. However, with Branagh doubling for Woody, at least we’re spared the reflexive doses of self-hatred disguised as Jewish humor and the repellent sight of lissome young actresses forced to feign sexual attraction to their wizened director.

Should you manage to clear the hurdles of Allen’s moralizing and Branagh’s impersonation, what’s the payoff? Well, probably not as much as your forbearance deserves. In Celebrity’s open-weave screenplay, scummy Lee and neurotic Robin (Davis), lackluster survivors of a shattered union, attempt to navigate People magazine’s treacherous rapids. Structured as a series of skits, the over-attenuated 113-minute movie jumps from vignette to vignette. There are some funny if familiar bits: Davis’ visits to an upscale Catholic retreat and a facelift clinic; a sharply observed screening of a pretentious art film; a backstage glimpse of a sensationalistic talk show featuring skinheads, rabbis, overweight achievers, and Mafia dons. Some members of the large ensemble are awfully easy on the eyes (Theron, Ryder, Azaria); others dig beneath the surface of their characters, notably DiCaprio as a dissolute movie idol (no stretch there) and Davis, whose performance goes hysterically over the top but remains arresting. Sven Nykvist’s sparkling black-and-white camerawork maximizes the film’s exteriors and numerous club, theater, gallery, and restaurant locations.

Now for the downside. From the mandatory, austere opening titles backed by yet another vintage recording (Little Jack Little’s “You Oughta Be in Pictures”), Allen rehashes themes he’s been diddling with for a quarter-century: the erosion of artistic and ethical standards, the alluring vacuity of pop culture, the compulsive but fruitless quest for romance. Stir Stardust Memories’ whiskey and Manhattan’s sweet vermouth with a dash of Deconstructing Harry’s bitters, and you’ve got Celebrity. The zing has oozed out of Allen’s writing—is any moviegoer dim enough to chortle at the putative wit of “Ask not for whom the bell tolls or, more accurately, for whom the toilet flushes”?—only to be replaced by a late-blooming fixation with oral sex (Griffith does Branagh in the opening reel, and later on Davis and hooker Bebe Neuwirth share a cringe-making banana practice session which is salvaged from ignominy by a climactic literal and farcical gag). A dance-club sequence featuring basketballer Anthony Mason approaches the jaw-dropping racism of poor Hazelle Goodman’s “black hole” role in Deconstructing Harry.

In Celebrity’s schema, Lee ultimately fails at everything—art, renown, amour—as Robin ascends from insecure, sexually inhibited, self-loathing English teacher to celebrated talk-show hostess married to an adoring television producer. Although her transformation feels rushed and somewhat implausible—as questionable as the screenplay’s apparent assumption that Beowulf has something to do with Chaucer—Robin poses a pithy question near the film’s climax: She wonders why, having become everything that she hitherto despised, she feels so much happier. That’s something Allen himself might productively ponder the next time he’s between projects.

Bennett Miller’s documentary The Cruise presents another black-and-white vision of New York City, but there’s not a celebrity in sight. Miller’s subject is Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a duck-voiced, frizzy-haired, acne-scarred tour guide. From the top of a Gray Lines double-decker bus, Levitch functions as a kind of verbal abstract expressionist with Manhattan as his canvas. A blend of poet, philosopher, and crackpot, he rhapsodizes about the effects of sunlight upon a white terra-cotta façade by Louis Sullivan, curses the city’s repressive rectilinear street plan, and inveighs against “civilization” as the enemy of individualism, spontaneity, and fulfillment.

Nothing appears to have diminished Speed’s nonconformity, least of all “the living organism” that serves as the subject of his abstruse, uninhibited Freudian/ metaphysical spritzes. (Surprisingly, tourists appear unfazed by his sibilant discourses. I’d be tempted to hop off the bus.) In footage depicting Levitch away from his job, Miller reveals a bitter, alienated man, an intelligent, sensitive outsider denied recognition and love by a society that has little use for his special gifts. At one point, he hails the cockroach’s survival, implying that the insect is better suited to endure than he. Near the fadeout, in a monologue of Shakespearean fury, he settles scores with his mother and individuals past and present who have failed to embrace and comprehend him.

The film’s title specifically refers to the circular Gray Line tour, but, in Levitch’s lexicon, it becomes a metaphor for freedom—the ability to move though the world unfettered by conventional judgments and material constraints. Miller’s sympathetic portrait of Levitch (Miller also produced and photographed the film) is illuminating and affecting. But 76 minutes of nonstop Levitch rant becomes grating and, finally, exhausting. The Cruise would be considerably more effective as a half-hour profile or as part of an omnibus documentary chronicling other intriguing urban outcasts. Nevertheless, time spent with Levitch yields greater intellectual and emotional returns than yet another round of nightlife with the air-kissing, self-serving denizens of Allen’s island anthill.CP