The Critics: Cinema: Fellini did it rather better

Celebrity Director: Woody Allen Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Melanie Griffith, Judy Davis (114 mins; 18)
A Woody Allen film is a palimpsest. Hack away at the surface and you'll always find, just under it, another film, its referential model.

It used to be that the model was positively flaunted, rubbed in our faces. It was easy to identify Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night under A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy or Fellini's 81/2 under Stardust Memories. In those days Allen wanted us to get the reference.

In recent years, though, the hommages have become less obtrusive. It's almost as though they're now exclusively for his own benefit, as though, superstitiously, he can embark on a new film only if its premiss has already been legitimised by one of his idols - primarily Bergman and Fellini - a premiss he then does his darnedest to disguise. I recall I was so dazzled by the multiple layers of narrative in Deconstructing Harry I realised only after the film was over that its "present tense", so to speak, had involved the protagonist travelling up-country to receive an honorary degree from his Alma Mater (whose name turned out to be, ahem, Adair College), exactly the same basic premise as in Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Now, with his latest film, the model is flaunted once more. Celebrity is Woody Allen's La Dolce Vita.

Both films, Fellini's and Allen's - set, respectively, in the Rome of the 1950s and the Manhattan of the 1990s - are satires on the voracious cult and industry of fame. Both are episodically structured. In both we're guided through a squalid, glitzy netherworld of models, starlets, journalists, movie stars and perennial hangers-on by a sympathetic anti-hero, a failed writer reduced to moonlighting as a gossip columnist: Marcello Mastroianni unforgettably in La Dolce Vita; Kenneth Branagh just as unforgettably (alas) in Celebrity. In both there's an extended set-piece featuring a statuesque stunner of eyeball-distending sex appeal, Anita Ekberg chez Fellini and the mannequin Charlize Theron chez Allen. In both, too, our anti-hero's unattainable ideal of purity and integrity is personified by a dark, doe-eyed beauty (in Allen's film, it's Winona Ryder). And both, finally, are in black and white.

The reference is as usual a crushing one. Fellini's film is a near-masterpiece; Allen's isn't even what could be called a near-missterpiece. But that, in a sense, is what's admirable about his work, even when, as is true of Celebrity, it's of a non-vintage cru. While Holly- wood continues to pander to the lowest common denominator, he alone of American film- makers remains in thrall to an almost parodically high-minded ideal of European art cinema.

I don't know if there's anything left to say about the Warholian 15-minutes- of-fame but, if there is, Allen doesn't say it: don't expect to learn anything from Celebrity. Yet that really isn't the point. Since this is Allen's patch, the supreme pleasure of the film is its uncanny justness of tone and observation. The scene, for example, in which Branagh, attempting to pitch a screenplay to a brattish Leonardo DiCaprio, finds himself caught up in the latter's drunken, squabbling, dope-sniffing entourage then whisked off on a superstar whim to Atlantic City, isn't just brilliantly written (and played: DiCaprio is as good as he's ever been); it impresses one as absolutely how these things must happen in life. It's unlikely to come as news to anyone that hot young movie stars sometimes trash their hotel rooms, but the scene seems so authentic and unfabricated it makes one wonder whether Allen might not have invented a new genre: fly-on-the-wall fiction.

Even the feebler moments somehow contrive to ring true. There's a skit- like vignette involving Branagh's estranged wife (Judy Davis), a chic hooker (Bebe Neuwirth) whom Davis consults to help add lustre and variety to her sexual technique, and - a prop Woody Allen hasn't employed since Sleeper - a phallic banana. As written, the scene is one long cheap shot, deeply patronising to both actresses. It's almost rescued by Neuwirth, though, not only sensational but utterly plausible as a capable pro going about her well-paid business, bemused yet not quite blase.

That scene is one of the film's several small buts. There are two great big ones.

The first is Branagh's by now notorious mimicry of Allen's vocal and gestural mannerisms. As an impersonation, it's an extraordinary feat for an Englishman and initially fascinating to watch and listen to. Then it starts to set one's teeth on edge. It's also wholly unconducive to plausibility. Even latterly, and despite all manner of misgivings, most of us have tended to accept Allen himself in this sort of role for the simple, dumb but irresistible reason that, as we're all aware, he's managed to bed loads of beautiful younger women in life, so why not on film? I know nothing of Kenneth Branagh's private life, but I'm afraid I found it impossible, this time around, to make the same leap of faith.

The film's second major flaw relates to its genre. There's a fundamental problem with satire as an artistic mode, a real catch-22. If you set out to satirise something, it means you consider it intrinsically worthy of satire. In that phrase "worthy of satire", however, there's also an implication of "worth". Now Allen patently believes that the characters in Celebrity are worthy of his satire; he believes, in other words, that they're relevant, even that they're important. And that's what renders the film totally inoffensive: one's conviction that, for all his raillery, he's actually in love with this neurotically posturing riff-raff. He is, and he knows he is, one of them. Celebrity, ultimately, plays like a celebration.