What are we to make of Woody Allen in 2013? Since at least the mid-70s the poster-boy for neurotic cinema has been steadily ploughing his own cinematic furrow, releasing films that aren’t comfortable with generic labels or even commercial ones, now that serious mainstream movies for adults have gone the same way as Walkmans and mobile phones that only have the ability to make phone calls.
It doesn’t help that he’s wildly, famously inconsistent: since the excellent early to mid 90s run that included Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, even the most fervent fan would be hard pushed to argue that his recent filmography has been defined by a long periods of mediocrity. It seems that, like the oft-repeated maxim about Star Trek movies, every Allen film that hints at a long-awaited return to form (Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona) is inevitably followed by a poorly-received, momentum-killing dud (Scoop, Whatever Works).
So it proved once more recently after the whimsical and charming Midnight in Paris – a major critical success and Allen’s biggest box-office hit ever – was succeeded by the equally whimsical but decidedly less successful To Rome With Love. Taking his staggeringly prolific workrate into account, what this effectively means is that Woody makes a heralded return to form roughly once every six months, like some sort of migratory bird returning to the warmer climes of critical approval once the atmosphere gets too frosty.
Blue Jasmine has even more weight on its shoulders than the usual Allen film – it marks only the second time he has made a film in America since 2005 (which doesn’t sound like a long time, before you consider that he has made ten films in that time), after the aforementioned middling successes of his European productions. And even for a Woody film, Blue Jasmine has a fantastic cast, anchored by a lead performance from Cate Blanchett that has been the subject of awards chatter since its premiere. So is Blue Jasmine a revitalising Wrath of Khan, or a mind-numbing Search for Spock? The answer is probably the former, but unfortunately not without some reservations.
We meet the brittle, highly-strung Jasmine (Blanchett) on an airplane from New York to San Francisco, on her way to stay with her adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after a messy separation from an offensively rich, unctuously charming banker husband (Alec Baldwin), the details of which are teasingly revealed across the course of the film. Ginger, a single mother, lives with two grubby kids in a perfectly reasonable apartment towards which Jasmine, a dedicated member of the 5th Avenue gala and luncheon set, can barely mask her revulsion. She maintains a similar attitude towards Ginger’s current beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a slicked-back wad of testosterone who understandably clashes with Jasmine, with her brilliantine looks and pathological fear of vulgarity.
Lost in Ginger’s lower-middle-class world and homesick for her own, Jasmine half-heartedly attempts to make a new life for herself in San Francisco and embrace a ‘normal’ life: however, the call of a return to her former life as unthinkably wealthy domestic goddess proves strong enough to pull her and those around her into some dark and uncomfortable places.
There are two things that will define your enjoyment of Blue Jasmine: how much you buy into Cate Blanchett’s performance, and how much you buy into the world Woody creates with his script. I personally feel that both suffer from the same issue: technically brilliant, but ultimately lacking in soul.
Blanchett on screen is physically awesome, her supernatural beauty providing an ironic visual counterpoint to her character’s generally poisonous demeanour. On top of her natural screen power, she piles on a number of nervous tics and mannerisms that are technically impressive but never add up into an onscreen persona that is entirely credible: there’s no doubt she is utterly compelling whenever she’s on screen, but the performance nevertheless feels a little too theatrical and cartoonish – particularly when mental health issues begin to be addressed – for Jasmine ever to threaten to become someone you might be able to envisage existing in real life. It’s a performance to admire, but not one I could ever bring myself to love.
This is a problem with most of the characters in the film: they feel more like pawns on Woody’s chess board than they do rounded people, and while broad archetypes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, if you want to make profound points about the relationships, privilege and delusion – as appears to be his intention – there needs to be moments of recognition and empathy in there to do the dramatic heavy lifting. The dialogue occasionally feels forced and stilted, and there’s something uncomfortably reductive about the way Woody represents class, with the ‘working-class’ characters given a salt-of-the-eart gloss that inevitably feels patronising when taking into account Allen’s usual predilection for upscale New York comedies-of-manners. Certainly, the flashback scenes set largely within Jasmine’s NY mansion feel more assured than the ones in workaday San Francisco.
Blue Jasmine has been compared to other seminal Serious Woody films like Crimes and Misdemeanours and Husbands and Wives, but a more apposite comparison is probably Jason Reitman’s Young Adult. Like Blue Jasmine, it features a stupendously beautiful woman playing a grotesque, deluded monster, but I can’t help but feel Young Adult is much more successful in what it is trying to say about that particular side of human nature than Blue Jasmine, and it’s largely down to how painfully credible the characters are (and believe me, it feels very weird to accuse a Woody Allen script of being mannered while praising Diablo Cody script for doing the opposite). Here, they’re often just painful.
That I wasn’t as invested in Blue Jasmine as I wanted to be is disappointing only because there is so much to like about it: it’s beautiful to look at, with Javier Aguirresphobe (who collaborated with Allen previously on Vicky Christina Barcelona) bringing a stark clarity to Jasmine’s world that allows us to focus on the pinpoint detail present within the performances. And the cast is uniformly excellent, bringing roles that perhaps feel a little two-dimensional on the page to life: Cannavale is funny and reliably engaging, Hawkins give a touching performance that nicely plays off Blanchett’s fireworks, Baldwin is typically brilliant (although he could play the role of an untrustworthy alpha male playboy in his sleep), and Louis CK and Peter Saarsgaard have nice cameos. The real surprise is former shock-comic Andrew Dice Clay, of the dirty limericks fame, who for my money provides more pathos and humanity in his small role than anyone else in the movie: Blanchett included.
Also for all its flaws Allen’s script is still brilliantly structured, weaving between comedy and drama with ease and never playing out quite like how you think it will. The flashback structure threatens to become tiresome but never does, with Allen knowing exactly when to reveal information about his characters for maximum impact. And this being a Woody Allen movie, it still features more genuine insight into adult love and relationships than 99% of films released this year.
It’s just such a shame that he couldn’t inject either a bit more darkness, or a lot more heart into his story. It feels like Woody was happy to remain distant from these characters, and was unwilling to either embrace them or truly go down into the depths with them when the darkness begins to unfold. A pity, because while this is an engaging, entertaining film, if he had nailed the characterisation I’ve no doubt this is a film that would stand along his very best work. Ah well. Another one will be along in a few months. Perhaps that’ll be a return to form.
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