La Dolce Vita

Woody Allen and some rootless professional assassins discover the meaninglessness of it all.

Directed by Woody Allen
Miramax Films

Directed by John Frankenheimer
United Artists

Clay Pigeons
Directed by David Dobkin
Gramercy Pictures

What Dreams May Come
Directed by Vincent Ward
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Barbara Kopple’s recent, ironically titled Wild Man Blues chronicled the European tour of Woody Allen and his Dixieland jazz band. Those who endured it (I felt caged, which might have been Kopple’s intent) saw the celebrity polite but frozen-faced as star struck well-wishers attempted to make conversation with him, then moaning that he wished he could be back in his New York apartment or editing room. I’m not sure if Allen was ever a public person, but his social skills have visibly eroded after 25 years of self-imposed isolation–of hiding behind his wealth and celebrity. If anyone was not in a position to give us insight into the corrosive vacuity of our culture it’s Allen, who’s so out of touch that he reportedly cast Kirstie Allen in his last film, Deconstructing Harry, without ever having seen Cheers, and whose idea of sexual audacity in his new one is to have a hooker (Bebe Neuwirth, another actress he never saw on Cheers) teach a repressed hysteric (Judy Davis) how to give a blow job by sliding a banana in and out of her mouth.

Allen doesn’t go to big premieres or Academy Award parties, and Celebrity is his idea of what he’s missing. The movie, which was the celebrity studded opening night attraction of the New York Film Festival and will soon arrive at a theater near you, is more entertaining than it ought to be–but then, Allen has evolved into a first-rate director. Last year, Roger Ebert ridiculed something I wrote about Deconstructing Harry: “The result is more rambunctious–and more fun–than any movie he has made in years. What puzzles me is why it still adds up to something so anemic and coldly distasteful.” It’s always nice to be noticed, but Ebert’s implication–that it’s silly to be conflicted about the work of an artist, even one whose technical and emotional smarts have matured at different rates–is willfully obtuse. As a piece of cinema music, Celebrity is limpid and graceful, and Sven Nykvist’s black-and-white photography gives the images a luster that’s often exhilaratingly at odds with the degeneracy being portrayed. Episode after episode has a pleasing shape, with wittily protracted takes and on the button punch lines. But–here we go again, Roger!--I found the movie cheap, muddled, and thoroughly devoid of insight. (If you think I’m divided on Allen, Roger, you should hear me on Bill Clinton.)

The picture’s entree into this dolce vita is Kenneth Branagh as Lee Simon, a celebrity-profiling magazine writer and failed novelist who’s also peddling an action screenplay (“but with a strong personal crisis”). Lee comes on to virtually every beautiful woman he meets and has an amazing amount of success for someone so otherwise unsuccessful and so thickened with dissipation. Branagh plays the part with a Woody Allen stammer–maybe the dumbest creative decision he has made since casting Robert De Niro as Frankenstein’s monster. As written, the character has no center, and Branagh’s mimetic turn allows him to skip along the surface of the part while people in the audience whisper, “He sounds like Woody Allen!” Nearly 30 years ago, Allen wrote a brilliant short story about a man who goes to the hospital to visit a dying acquaintance and then returns on a daily basis, portraying himself as a saint, because he has the hots for the attending nurse. Allen brings the same lacerating self-hatred to his protagonist here, but with no new wisdom; forced to explain himself, Lee can only stammer incoherently. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill has Edmund Tyrone, his alter ego, announce, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” For Allen, stammering is the acquired eloquence of obfuscators. His fog is self-induced.

It’s also protective. The very idea of public culture seems to fill him with dread, and it’s hard to think of a single piece of meaningful social intercourse in the entire movie. People at parties are bimbos or phonies or–worst of all!--critics. Lee’s jittery ex-wife, Robin (Davis), turns the head of a sweet producer (Joe Mantegna), who puts her on television to interview billionaire vulgarians and exhibitionistic freaks. She becomes a celebrity and achieves solidity, while Lee remains arrested–chasing glassy-eyed supermodels and flaky twentysomething actresses. He is in a star-studded hell.

For someone so appalled by celebrity, Allen exploits it deftly, casting big-name actors to fill out parts that would otherwise be recognized as pathetically underwritten. In Celebrity, he gets a lot of mileage out of Davis (playing yet another poetically discombobulated basket case–gorgeously), Winona Ryder (even more breathtaking in black-and-white), Mantegna, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, Melanie Griffith (giving Lee a blow job), and Leonardo DiCaprio as a hotel room trashing, pretty boy superstar. Allen gets more than he deserves from DiCaprio, whose brief appearance is the highlight of the picture. He’s meant to embody everything shallow and psychotic about stardom (the conception is out of tabloid tales of Johnny Depp), but the actor has never looked as beautiful, with the chiseled insolence of a young Elvis Presley and the bearing of a Greek god. Every idea in the sequence is banal, but DiCaprio reminds you why movie stars sometimes deserve to be worshipped.

Perpetually dissatisfied, Allen’s protagonist hops from one fabulous babe to another but never comes close to wholeness. His one attempt at something solid–a novel–is vindictively destroyed by a jilted lover. (There’s only one copy–a device that was stale a century ago when Hedda Gabler burned Ejlert Lovborg’s manuscript and in the age of word processors is just inane.) In linking Lee’s self-destructiveness to the culture in which he’s enmeshed, Allen reminds me of Newt Gingrich, who blamed Susan Smith’s drowning of her children on liberals and the counterculture, before it was revealed that the young woman’s disturbed psyche had more to do with the nocturnal visits of her stepfather, a higher-up in the state’s Republican Party. In one sequence, Allen ridicules plastic surgeons and the aging, wealthy women who cling and kowtow to them. This from a man in his mid-60s who casts himself opposite increasingly younger starlets, a man who argues that taking up with a girl barely out of her teens is a mark of purity! Allen’s sanctimoniousness makes me understand why people trash hotel rooms.

In Celebrity, the protagonist peddles a script about “an armored car robbery, but with a strong personal crisis.” That sounds a little like Ronin, which has won rave reviews for its poker-faced depiction of rootless professional assassins (among them Robert De Niro and Jean Reno) who get double- and triple- and quadruple-crossed and come to question the meaning of their existence. Well, not really: The audience gets double-crossed, too, in the climax, but by then so many people have had their heads casually blown off that it’s hard to care who’s doing what to whom and why. Directed by the veteran John Frankenheimer, Ronin doesn’t have the shorthand syntax of a ‘90s thriller. It has a gritty feel and a tight, methodical, one-thing-after-another tempo. Bystanders are mowed down, innocent people are blown away, cars go careening down twisty French streets, and Frankenheimer just keeps barreling ahead, substituting noise and brutality for a point of view. (Or does he want us to think that his emotionless linearity is an Existential point of view?) I was absorbed by Ronin for an hour or so, but gradually realized that I was wearing De Niro’s dyspeptic scowl. A three Maalox thriller.

Clay Pigeons gets off to a jolly start before petering out into hiply modernist irresolution. Both violent and absurd, it features a hero (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s guilty of a sexual indiscretion but gets more than he bargained for when the distraught husband of his mistress commits suicide and makes it look like a murder committed by–guess who? Pretty soon Phoenix is under suspicion for a whole bunch of killings he didn’t commit, including those of a prolific serial killer. The film, smoothly directed by David Dobkin, has a neat farcical structure but is too in love with its overly tight-lipped protagonist and deadpan pacing. See it for Jeneane Garafolo as a sour, sarcastic FBI agent and Vince Vaughn as a rhinestone cowboy trucker whose unlined face and bland bonhomie grow more hilariously creepy with each passing corpse.

What Dreams May Come weds an epic, sometimes visionary, depiction of the afterlife to a script and story with fewer psychological layers than the average Hallmark card. Featuring the random deaths of young children, fatal automobile accidents, a suicide, and a lot of after-death romping amid watercolored lilies, it’s about as deadly as a movie can be without literally emitting mustard gas.