Film-history professors of the future might offer Woody Allen's post-'80s work as evidence of a great artist's decline. After all, Allen has turned out only two fully satisfying films in the last decade -- 1989's emotionally complex "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and 1992's disturbing, herky-jerky "Husbands and Wives."
"Celebrity," Allen's new black-and-white essay on the lures and traps of fame (with nods to his own "Stardust Memories" and Fellini's "La Dolce Vita") isn't likely to provoke a major revision of that critical consensus.
The movie's chief flaw, biggest disappointment and most curious question mark is the performance of Kenneth Branagh, the classically trained Irish-born actor whose big-screen career has progressed from early high promise to something resembling blandness.
Branagh, as celebrity-interviewing journalist Lee Simon, apparently felt inclined to do his own, best version of Woody. So we get all those familiar, insecurity-driven mannerisms -- stutters, nervous tics, whining -- transplanted onto a body other than that of our favorite neurotic Jewish New Yorker. Branagh, practically a moving standup act here, took a risk that failed miserably. His director should have stopped the stunt cold.
On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio, nabbed before "Titanic" made him king of the world, is perfectly cast as a superstar actor (some stretch, huh?) who may or may not have a serious interest in Simon's long-delayed screenplay. Leo ought to get credit: He shreds his nice-guy image with this portrayal of a nasty, pompous screen idol given to beating up his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), trashing hotel rooms, snorting coke, organizing orgies and traveling with an entourage of equally narcissistic friends. It's funny, smartly shaded work.
Simon, whose story is at the center of "Celebrity," is a womanizer recently divorced from Robin, played by the always-reliable Judy Davis with the right mixture of rage and hurt. Branagh's journalist, a failed novelist, is constantly on the prowl, connecting with young extra Nola (Winona Ryder) minutes before meeting with a slinky, leggy movie star (Melanie Griffith). She's the kind of happily married woman who uses the Oval Office defense to justify a nonintercourse sexual liaison with her interviewer. "My body belongs to my husband," she explains. "What I do from the neck up is a different story."
He later finds himself in hot pursuit of a supermodel (Charlize Theron), in a close relationship with vivacious, supportive book editor Bonnie (Famke Janssen) and, finally, together with Nola in a coupling that turns sour.
According to Allen, celebrityhood for better and worse is a law of the universe that simply can't be thwarted. What else would account for racists and their targets cheerfully hanging out together backstage at a talk show? "The skinheads eat all the bagels already?" a rabbi asks Robin, who has been transformed from a reserved English teacher into an unctuous television host. "I'm everything I ever hated, and I've never been happier," she tells her ex-husband.
Television priests, the literati and filmmakers, too, are subject to Allen's sharp scalpel. During a screening, Joe Mantegna, as a friendly television producer in love with Robin, exclaims that the director is "one of those `jerks` who shoots all his films in black and white."
Despite some smart jabs, though, the various plot strands of "Celebrity" don't hang together. Each narrative thread may be interesting in its own way, but only longtime fans and curiosity seekers will warm to the blend of bittersweet comedy and occasionally provocative thesis.