You know how talk-show hosts love to drag out clips of the small roles their guests played before they were famous? Well, those are the roles that Woody Allen gives his actors after they've made it. I'll never forget watching "Shadows and Fog" and wondering when Kate Nelligan would turn up -- until I realized that she already had. Nelligan's entire role consisted of sticking her head out of a second-story window at the end of an alley and shouting a few lines of dialogue, all of it in long shot. There are exceptions, actors who've carved places for themselves in several recent Allen movies -- Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston and Judy Davis come to mind. But too many more wind up with nondescript parts that don't require anything of them.
In Allen's new film, "Celebrity," versatile character actor Hank Azaria turns up in one scene as a writer at a literary party. He's fine, but anybody could have played the part. Still, Azaria fares better than Andre Gregory, whose infrequent film appearances have had the witty grace of a line drawing. Appearing in another party scene as a famous film director, Gregory gets one fleeting close-up as his character is identified in voice-over.
Not that Allen's leads wind up in clover. In "Celebrity," Kenneth Branagh, who stars as a celebrity journalist who wants to leave his comfortable hackwork behind and return to writing novels, has been directed to play ... Woody Allen -- just as Edward Norton (who at least had some fun with it) was in "Everyone Says I Love You" and Mia Farrow was in nearly every Allen movie she appeared in. There's the same nervous stammering, the same high-pitched exclamations ("Jeee-sus!"). It's at least more seemly to watch a younger man like Branagh doing Allen's traditional schtick, a mercy in the scenes with Winona Ryder as the actress he falls for. Leonardo DiCaprio shows up midway through the movie as a spoiled, shallow, girlfriend-beating, coked-up young movie star (that might seem a satire on DiCaprio's idol status, though "Celebrity" was actually filmed before the release of "Titanic"), and there's nothing about the role, or Allen's direction of DiCaprio, to suggest that it couldn't have been played by one of the Backstreet Boys. There's certainly no evidence that Allen is aware DiCaprio is anything but a teen idol, no evidence that he's directing the brilliant actor of "This Boy's Life," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Marvin's Room."
But then, when has Woody Allen ever been interested in anything besides Woody Allen? He has no interest in bringing out new sides of his actors. Jim Henson's casts had more spontaneity. The point of Allen's combining prestigious actors, movie stars who usually stay away from small films and up-and-coming young starlets seems simply to show that he can get anyone he wants because he's Woody Allen. Like his practice of giving cast members only the script pages on which they have lines, it's a show of power, not that much different from being able to command a good table at the hot new restaurant. Touting "Celebrity" as Woody Allen's dissection of our obsession with fame is like touting "Martha Stewart Living" as an examination of how materialism rules our lives. Allen's carefully crafted, anti-celebrity image -- the shunning of interviews and so on -- is just as much a celebrity image as anything he makes fun of here. But Allen remains a very potent fantasy figure for critics and moviegoers who want to see him as something like America's resident European filmmaker, untouched by the vagaries and vulgarities of the industry he works in. His familiar, formalized, art-film aesthetic reinforces that perception. It's impressive that, in the age of blockbusters, Allen has managed to keep making movies his way. (It's also a sign of the influence he wields.) But can we drop the pretense that a director whose films are a virtual catalog of tastefully chic Manhattan restaurants and apartments and clothing is above the "triviality" of style?
We can be grateful that the subject of fame doesn't, in "Celebrity," bring out the same bile of "Stardust Memories," Allen's golden shower to his admirers. But what's the film's message? That our infatuation with the rich and famous has made our culture shallow and facile. Allen might have gotten by with that triteness if he'd shown some willingness to meet the culture halfway, to make the perks of fame appear so luscious that it would be obvious why people go after them. But his approach to making movies has become too rigidly aestheticized to stoop to such lowly diversions as glitz and glamour. "Celebrity" was shot in cold black-and-white, newsprint black-and-white, by Sven Nykvist. You get the feeling that, to Allen, making this movie look seductive would be tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. So when Branagh follows a supermodel (Charlize Theron) on an all-night escapade of gallery openings, bar hopping, club hopping, Allen holds the settings at a revolted distance, the way Alvy held up that lobster in "Annie Hall." He's too anal to plunge us into the frenzy of it all, terrified to entertain the possibility that -- heaven forfend -- this way of life might actually offer some kicks. And that approach reins in Theron. She gives the movie's best performance, funny and sexy and lively, despite working for a director intent only on using her character as an amoral airhead symptomatic of society's ills. As she has in other roles, like "Devil's Advocate," Theron seems capable of raising all sorts of comic hell, just the sort Allen wouldn't know how to handle.
It should be obvious by now that the only women Allen is interested in are the ones he can control. The misogyny here isn't as rampant as it was in "Husbands and Wives," "Mighty Aphrodite" or last year's "Deconstructing Harry," in which Zelig aped both Philip Roth and Fellini. That movie was distinguished by Allen's first African-American character, a prostitute referred to in one charming instance as "the black hole." But there isn't a woman in the movie who isn't vapid, crazy, shrill, duplicitous and professionally -- if not personally -- castrating. How, I wonder, will the people who talk about the perceptive artistry of Woody Allen defend the scene where Branagh is interviewing a movie star (played by Melanie Griffith) and the shot is framed so that all we see of her is her breasts? Will they counter that, after all, we do get to see her face when she suddenly drops to her knees to fellate him? There's no reason why Ryder's aspiring young actress should be chronically unfaithful, except so that she can serve as this year's model of the type Allen described in "Manhattan," the crazy ones you always believe you can change. Judy Davis plays Branagh's ex-wife, and though there's real skill in her panoply of nervous tics, after "Husbands and Wives" and "Deconstructing Harry" and now "Celebrity," it's fair to ask why shambling neurotic wreck is the only role Allen can imagine for one of the greatest actresses in the world?
Presumably, we're meant to feel that something real and essential has been sacrificed in favor of something phony and ephemeral when Davis gives up her career teaching literature to become the host of a dopey food and celebrities TV show. But she looks much happier nattering to Donald Trump over pasta or fooling around with her new husband (Joe Mantegna, doing his likable-guy bit, likably) than she does fretting over how to communicate the greatness of Chaucer. The notion that someone would willingly give up the self-awareness of high culture for shallower comforts and be happy with the choice seems unthinkable to Allen.
And there's no telling what Branagh has given up. Apparently, we're meant to think that his dream of leaving celebrity journalism to return to writing novels is a sign of substance. But we have no way of knowing whether there's anything to this man beyond his starfucking proclivities. Finally, the movie's intersection of the worlds of movies, literature, fashion and journalism seems nothing more than a backdrop to a limp version of the melancholic romantic travails familiar from so many other Allen movies (and even more familiar here, since Allen gives Branagh only slight variations on lines he spoke to Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall" and to Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan"). Whether it's Woody or one of his stand-ins, the central figure of so many recent Allen movies seems to be the Little Tramp, only with a hard-on and alone in the cold, mean city.
Ever since he graduated from comedian to artist, Allen has consistently won praise for the wrong things. Allen's best movie of the '80s and '90s, "Manhattan Murder Mystery," was dismissed as a slight, feeble throwback to the days when he made comedies (as if those films that gave us so much pleasure had suddenly become beneath consideration). On the surface, "Manhattan Murder Mystery" was slight -- a good Bob Hope picture. But beneath the surface was something genuinely touching, the story of how middle-aged people cope when they realize that there's more of life behind them than in front of them, and that the choices they've made are the ones they're stuck with from here on out. "Manhattan Murder Mystery" didn't announce its seriousness, and so it was considered less worthy of attention than, say, the Sunday-school homilies of "Crimes and Misdemeanors." But it was pleasurable and engaging in a way that Allen's "serious" movies have never managed. There's an undeniable discipline to a filmmaker who, unfailingly, turns out a movie a year. And when Allen hits it right, as he did in "Manhattan Murder Mystery" or "Bullets over Broadway," he can still be a joy. But too much of the time, he's working out of habit, not because he's inspired to make a movie, or because he has anything to say, or even for the sheer joy of working in the medium. It's dutiful, joyless labor -- like Willie Loman dragging out the sample cases one more time.