Film: The Big Picture - Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the vainest of them all?

CELEBRITY (18) DIRECTOR: WOODY ALLEN STARRING: KENNETH BRANAGH, JUDY DAVIS, WINONA RYDER, LEONARDO DICAPRIO 114 MINUTES

Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face," wrote John Updike. "As soon as one is aware of being `somebody', to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation." Woody Allen's sprightly new picture Celebrity goes some way to bearing out these observations. It's about a self-absorbed celebrity journalist named Lee Simon who dumps his wife after 16 years of marriage in order to pursue younger and more glamorous women.

Five minutes into the story and an actress (Melanie Griffith) is down on her knees plucking at the buckle of Lee's tickled trousers. Next he's getting all steamed up with a blonde supermodel (Charlize Theron), who breathily informs him that she's polymorphously perverse and has a mirror on her bedroom ceiling.

Time was when Allen himself would have taken Lee's role - the schlemiel who can't believe his luck; this is the same man who once confessed that the reason he got into movies was to meet girls. But after the world went "yeeeugh" on seeing him kiss Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You, he finally twigged that he was too old to play the Lothario. In Celebrity he has wisely chosen to stay behind the camera.

Rather less wisely, he has recruited Kenneth Branagh to do a Woody Allen impersonation. In a recent Parkinson interview Allen spoke warmly of his star's performance, but I don't think many others will share his enthusiasm. Sure, Branagh has got every last stutter, gulp and hand gesticulation down to a T, but you are never allowed to forget the performance and believe in the character.

This miscasting might have been calamitous for the film were there not a parallel story concerning Lee's ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis), a pinched and desperate woman who can't get over being abandoned; in her flailing attempts to calm herself she goes on a convent retreat, considers plastic surgery and takes sexual instruction from a prostitute (Bebe Neuwirth, in a superbly matter-of-fact performance). "What goes through your mind when you do it?" "The crucifixion," Robin replies, unsmiling. Davis, whose prickly distress was the best thing in Deconstructing Harry, goes so deeply beneath the skin of this woman that it's almost painful; I don't think it would be controversial to call her the most intelligent screen actor of her generation.

A host of celebrity cameos satellite around Lee and Robin, lending the film a bustling, near-Altmanesque crowdedness. Joe Mantegna plays nicely against type as a suave TV producer, Winona Ryder is an aspiring actress, and - there's something for everyone here - Leonardo DiCaprio sends himself up as a spoilt movie brat who slaps his girlfriend around, trashes his hotel room and offers Lee exclusive access to his orgy. (I wonder: does this answer to the experience of any celebrity interviewer in the world?).

Lee, his appetite for nubile flesh still unsated, eventually joins in, though his real reason for hanging on to the brat's coat-tails soon becomes clear: he wants to sell his screenplay. Indeed, as the film proceeds, it seems that it's less about celebrity than ambition. Lee doesn't hang out with the beautiful people just to feel good about himself - he's a professional climber, too. After two poorly reviewed novels, with a third unfinished, he's decided to tip his hat at Hollywood, where the bucks flow and nobody minds if you write crap.

But the problem of Branagh won't go away. While Lee is meant to be covetous and unamiable, Allen means us to engage with his fate - much as we did with a previous surrogate, John Cusack, in Bullets Over Broadway.

If Allen had gone out on a limb and cast someone like Steve Buscemi in the role, he might have forced us into a perverse sympathy - for an earthling among the Venusians. Branagh, unfortunately, is neither one thing nor the other, and you certainly have no idea why young women keep throwing themselves at him. His break-up scene with a book editor (Famke Janssen) who believes in his talent should be poignant as well as funny - removal men lurk in the background as he explains why he can't live with her - but there's nothing for the audience to respond to in Lee's self-loathing. (We got to the loathing bit long before he did.)

Shot in black and white by the Bergman veteran Sven Nykvist, the film has the lovely, woozy look of a half-remembered dream; Janssen throwing pages of a manuscript from a drifting ferry is perhaps the most poetic sight of all. There's a kind of elegance, too, in its symmetry: while Lee goes into freefall, Robin becomes a reluctant success as a daytime TV interviewer. Celebrity has been more or less thrust upon her: "I'm everything I ever hated," she says, "and I've never been happier." It's not clear if we're meant to fear for her future. Will she become, in Updike's phrase, "blind and deaf in overanimation"?

Allen mocks the fame game here, often wittily, yet since he's a famous person himself it's tempting to wonder how reliable his reflexes are. Is it really the case that everyone becomes tainted by celebrity's touch? Can't it be survived? Personally I prefer Steve Martin's less pessimistic definition of the state: a celebrity is simply a movie star who looks as if he spends more than two hours working on his hair.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone