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Negligible Woody Allen effort. The fact that Allen the actor is nowhere in the cast is no doubt part of the problem, but chiefly because his substitute, Kenneth Branagh, is a problem unto himself. (The Purple Rose of Cairo managed to become one of Allen's best films without his on-screen participation.) Branagh, who perhaps approached the role as though Woody-speak were a specialized language on a par with Shakespearean, gives a stutter-perfect imitation of his director which proves to be a constant distraction, a creepy Body Snatcher persona that is neither fish nor fowl, is on the contrary both fishy and foul. Admittedly, many an actor in an Allen film has tended to sound a little Woody, but Branagh must be the first to aspire to sound Woodier than Woody. The best that can be said for the performance is that it does not ruin the movie because there was no movie to ruin, only a loosely threaded-together series of episodes having more or less to do with our current cultural dither over success, fame, glamour. The point of it all is none too sharply whittled. Allen chooses this occasion to resume his sporadic campaign on behalf of black-and-white photography (working with cameraman Sven Nykvist, long-time Bergman collaborator) -- but why? Why this particular project -- so contemporary, so glitzy, so voguish in focus? If the image was meant to create some emotional "distance," it creates instead entirely too much. It is very nearly as big a distraction as Kenneth Branagh. And although nice enough to look at, it is small compensation for the routineness of the material. With Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith. (1998) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated R

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