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.

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game