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Saturday, Aug. 14, 1999

Woody Allen, never too old to kvetch

There's a time in life when you decide that you've become too old to do certain things. Only yesterday you were gleefully and earnestly caught up in the absorbing game of hopscotch; today the very idea of drawing boxes on the sidewalk embarrasses the pants off you. Such is the effect of time, said Father O'Conner in Catholic school. Only faith remains unchanging, ever-present.

Rash, Father O'Conner, rash. For there are those who refuse to move on; they stick to the same old thing come hell or high water.

I'm talking about Woody Allen, who has told the same story over and over for the past 20 years and shows no signs of letting up. No one can tell this story better than he and no one even bothers to. Competition is meaningless when it comes to making a movie set in Manhattan, peopled by fickle neurotics crawling the city in search of the perfect relationship. You think he'll want to call it quits, but another year goes by and another Allen movie is released, opening yet again to the strains of scratchy jazz.

Lately they all seem to blend one into the other, creating the illusion that this is where good Hollywood actors go when they want to chill out and meet their friends. "Oh God, that last big action movie just wiped me out," they'll say. "I need to realign and meditate aloud, preferably in a Woody Allen film."

"Celebrity" is Allen's latest, in which a truckload of real-life celebrities play a truckload of fictional celebrities without really trying. It's intelligent and funny but falls short of making a social statement (a la "The Truman Show"), mainly because Allen is caught up in tending to his own anachronism: city people falling in and out of love and leaving their hangups behind like breadcrumbs in the forest. Follow the trail to a building that says "Therapy Clinic."

The protagonist is Lee (Kenneth Branagh) who just turned 40 and panics that "life could go by without ever knowing what it's like to have sex with a sleazy-looking blonde." He ditches his wife Robin (Judy Davis) and becomes a celebrity reporter, a job which allows him momentary intimacy with megawatt stars like Nichole (Melanie Griffiths) -- nymphomania in a minidress. The excitement soon wears thin however, and Lee dreams of writing a serious book and becoming a celeb himself instead of a celeb hanger-on.

In the meantime, Robin hooks up with TV producer Tony (Joe Mantegna) who gives her everything she had never even hoped for: glamorous job, glamorous makeover and his undying affection. Robin quickly climbs the ladder Lee has just started to mount -- in the end, Robin emerges victorious while Lee has no choice but to watch and drool from the sidelines.

Adorning their marital disaster is a series of vignettes that illustrate the celebrity world, all of it pretty much run-of-the-mill (The National Enquirer is a lot meatier).

Leonardo DiCaprio appears as a bratty actor who breaks up his hotel room, is nearly arrested, blows thousands of dollars in Atlantic City, participates in a sexual orgy and flies off to Africa, all in the same day. Issac Mizrahi is a successful Soho artist who has a big show and then complains that "the public doesn't get it, they just don't get it!" Charlize Theron sprints across several scenes as a supermodel who's either on the runway or exchanging hello kisses at parties.

And they're just a few among many. Pretty soon, watching the movie feels like watching a special department of heaven marked "Beautiful People Only." God probably goes over to shake hands and slap backs: "How're you doin'? I loved your work, it was terrific!"

Still, they're small beans compared to the biggest celeb of all, Woody Allen himself. Given of late to working with large and sprawling casts, for "Celebrity" he deploys about 20 stars, 242 speaking parts and over 5,000 extras. Few corporate executives have that kind of charisma, not to mention the power to shoot scenes in all the choice N.Y. celeb spots: Ziegfeld, El Flamingo, Bar Betta. Not to mention that Allen's personal life outscandalizes his movie plots.

"Celebrity" is vintage Allen as he has always described himself: "thin, but fun." One weighty change was that he refrained from playing the whining, neurotic, womanizing protagonist, passing the baton to Branagh, who displays his gratitude (or sarcasm) by mimicking Allen down to the tiniest detail. Everything is there, from the rumpled Ralph Lauren outfits to the stutters, to the timing of the wisecracks. I suppose this means, Father O'Conner, that Woody Allen still wants to play hopscotch but wants someone else to draw the boxes on the sidewalk.

"Celebrity" opens today at Yebisu Garden Cinema.

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