Director: Woody Allen
From his earliest film travails in the late 1960s to present day, Woody Allen’s output has been constant, and that constancy manifests itself in many ways. On average, he makes a film a year (not bad for a 78-year-old), but his films almost always deal with the romantic and personal traumas of wealthy white New Yorkers. His settings have moved out of NY in recent years, to mixed effect. Match Point was the best of the bad bunch of flicks that arose from his London period whilst Midnight In Paris, an enjoyable soufflé of a film, won him his first Oscar in 25 years. Woody has returned to the States, but rather than settle back into his old groove, like a nebbish prospector he has headed West to Califor-nye-ay for inspiration. Marin County’s hardly a jump from parkside Manhattan wealth-wise, but the Pacific air seems to have given Allen the boost he’s needed.
With his script for Blue Jasmine, Allen appears to have rediscovered that cruel bite that often accompanied his sly wit to devastating effect in his films of the late eighties and early nineties. Watching our heroine Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) sufferings recalls the sharp edges of Crimes and Misdemeanors, albeit not quite as bitter. Jasmine travels from New York to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) incarceration for fraud. Jasmine’s wealthy lifestyle has been completely taken away from her, and all that’s left are addictions to alcohol and Xanax. Jumping back-and-forth between Jasmine’s elegant past and downtrodden present, we see the devolution of a character who was content to take all the good things sent her way, and can’t cope when the bad things come down the conveyer belt in a tidal wave of inevitability. There’s no Alice-alike reinvention here; Jasmine’s luck has well and truly run out.
Like life, Allen has little pity for Jasmine; this screenplay is his most challenging in years. There are no time-travelling Parisians or alternating tragic/comic versions of the story. Tackling ideas arising from the current economic downturn sees Allen back at his acerbic best, with arguably more frank putdowns and emotional rawness than in his last half-dozen films combined. Most of the ire comes from the men in Ginger’s life. Her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, shorn of blue humour and infused with a little charm for once) lost money with Hal, and is less than happy at Jasmine’s arrival. Meanwhile, Ginger’s new beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale) sees Jasmine as an opportunistic leech. It doesn’t matter to Jasmine; Augie and Chili are the kind of people she’s avoided most of her life. Arguably, so has Allen. He’s often been criticized for the dearth of characters of lower classes or other races in his films (His first major black character was the hooker in Deconstructing Harry. Oops.), but Allen begins to redress the balance here; Ginger’s blue-collar life is relatively solid. It also helps that Hawkins, Cannavale and Clay make for appealing screen presences.
At the heart of all this is Blanchett, giving another brilliant performance in a career full of them. However, Jasmine is a cut above the likes of Elizabeth I or Katherine Hepburn because we get a Blanchett performance full of a vulnerability many would have thought below her. Jasmine is a flighty talky woman, nothing new for Australia’s most exquisitely-jawboned export. Yet, she is also mentally unstable and in dire need of support and a reality check. Having previously played Blanche Dubois in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire must have aided Blanchett, as Blue Jasmine often invites comparisons. Instead of the kindness of strangers, however, Jasmine seeks the help of her own family, something altogether more distant. Her ego-fuelled attempts to bag a wealthy Marin politico (Peter Saarsgard, a dead ringer for Kelsey Grammer circa 1993) add little levity. Her lies and addictions threaten to bring her down further, but every tremble of the hand and watery-eyed stare ensure we’re with Jasmine all the way down.
It’s not as effortlessly insightful as Annie Hall, but Blue Jasmine does see Allen back in form in a way that makes his previous (alleged) returns to form seem almost throwaway. Most people would be bitter about a few things by the time they reach 78, and it’s good to see some bile and venting back in Woody’s words. Stay angry, mensch; sour Woody is always a cut above so much la-di-dah.