Bergman and Fellini--they almost sound like a vaudeville act, don't they? Actually, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were the Scylla and Charybdis of international cinema during the '50s and '60s. Few directors were able to find their artistic identities without first passing through the Swedish scourge and the Italian clown. Among those who tried, some made it, some didn't, but I think most people would agree with me that Woody Allen has never quite broken through to the other side, from Interiors and Stardust Memories on. And yet, here he is again, with his new film Celebrity, steering his boat along the Fellini coastline, trying to avoid the rocks from above. I wish I could say he came out unscathed. I wish I could say he came out at all. The movie opens with a plane skywriting "HELP" over New York City--an allusion to the opening of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Jesus is being removed from Rome via helicopter. Let's give two points to Fellini for at least slightly more subtle symbolism. But the parallels don't end there. Celebrity, too, features a hack journalist (Kenneth Branagh instead of Marcello Mastroianni) who's at once repelled by and attracted to the sweet life. La dolce vita, for Fellini, was the chic despair of the rich and famous--what Pauline Kael famously called a "Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Party." For Allen, it's our contemporary celebrity culture, where everybody's famous for 15 minutes but has forgotten how to, you know, love. The sweet-and-sour life. Branagh's Lee has just gotten divorced from Judy Davis' Robin, leaving him free to pursue all the beautiful people his job brushes him up against. In the Anita Ekberg role, Melanie Griffith shows up as a Hollywood actress with a Clintonian definition of sex. Then Charlize Theron comes striding down the runway as what David Letterman likes to call a leggy supermodel. Both women are prepared to give it up for Lee, despite Branagh's painful Woody impersonation. So is a waitress who looks an awful lot like Winona Ryder. Lee's life is piggish with possibility. Meanwhile, Robin pursues her own form of divorce therapy, first holing up at a religious retreat, then looking into plastic surgery, after which she just happens to meet the man of her dreams. Go figure. Guy-gets-girl, guy-gives-up-girl-for-other-girl(s), guy-could-kick-himself-in-the-ass-for-giving-up-girl--Allen's been here before. But this time, he all but buries the storyline in a mise-en-scène that's somewhere between a Fellini circus and Dante's Inferno. Shot in black-and-white, Celebrity races all over New York and beyond--a film shoot, a fashion show, an art opening, a dance club, a prizefight, a gambling casino. (Who says Woody never leaves his apartment?) And yet the impression it leaves you with is of running in place, partly because Allen rarely varies the pace and partly because the movie doesn't build dramatically. We don't really care what happens to Lee and Robin. Perhaps we're not supposed to. But then why are we watching the movie?
To laugh, of course. Celebrity is billed as a comedy, but I can't imagine too many people responding that way. Part of the problem is that it's in black-and-white, which throws a quaint, esthetic sheen over everything. Part of the problem is Branagh, who shouldn't be doing Woody in the first place and is only able to capture the rhythms, not the inflections or the body language (or the face). Finally, a major part of the problem is Allen himself. Somewhere in the last 10 or 15 years, he misplaced his funny bone. He doesn't have much to tell us this time--nothing new, anyway--but it wouldn't really matter what he was telling us or not telling us if he still knew how to make us laugh. Without joie de vivre, there's no dolce vita, only a cold and clammy celebrity.