* (1 star)
wd – Woody Allen
ph – Javier Aguirresarobe
pd – Santo Loquasto
ed – Alisa Lepselter
cos – Suzy Benzinger
p – Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg
Being a Woody Allen devotee has always had its bad days. Or veritably, its bad years. He has made, by my count, at least half-a-dozen masterpieces and I never tire of our annual meetings. This, however, is not the case for all, and many consider modern day Allen to be more of an annual chore. Flimsy characters, half-finished ideas, out-of-style jokes and a smug tendency toward cityscape traveloguing are all cumulative complaints that we’re all aware of.
But what one continues to wonder is whether Allen himself is aware of these. Is he in a particularly melancholic state due to a lack of inspiration and a fear of expectation? His latest film seems to suggest this at every juncture. But every director feels this, so maybe we’re over-thinking it (I mean, he’s always been frustrated, but that’s Woody 24/7). Perhaps he’s just been rereading his favourite Tennessee Williams plays. Yes, I think that’s it. For, with Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen tackles the question that all thinking men have pondered in their most sober, pensive and cerebral of times: Who would you rather, Blanche or Blanchett?
As Blue Jasmine film opens, Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), whose husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich businessman, has pulled a Madoff and is imprisoned (as far as we know). Due to this, Jasmine is dead-broke and is forced to leave her Park Avenue apartment and stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Ginger, a divorced mother of two who works bagging groceries, subsists in an altogether different ecosphere from her sister’s and has scarcely beheld Jasmine since she married. Ginger has a fiancé named Chili (Bobby Cannavale, doing his Stanley Kowalski) whom – in an introductory lunch scene that ranks with Mr Allen’s most inane and least believable – Jasmine immediately dislikes.
Within the next few months, Jasmine resolves into an anxious existence at her sister’s place, eventually taking a job she had at first dismissed as offensively remedial: working the front desk for a randy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg). When that doesn’t work out, Jasmine opts for a career as an interior designer. She ultimately resolves to take a computer course that, for no discernible reason, requires her to bear hours of torturous nightly study. During all this, Jasmine and Ginger fight non-stop. These scenes alternate with flashbacks of Jasmine's life in New York that lead to her demise (a final tip-off one can see coming from a mile).
After this, the film veers off into various subplots: Ginger pursues a romance with a tender sound engineer (Louis C.K.), infuriating Chili, while Jasmine, upon meeting a refined, prosperous diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard), proceeds to lie and concoct a different past in order to gain his last name on her bank account.
The film is always intriguing, and by always I mean even after it’s over. Mr Allen, who would most likely want to make movies than depend on the kindness of strangers, efforts to create a grand showcase for this character – or characters – but this circus seems to be much stupider than usual. Most of the men are idiots and the women, psychotic. The problem here is that Mr Allen continually has his characters merely indicate and comment on whom they are and what they’re doing. For instance, we are told that both sisters are adopted and Ginger insists her sister was always their mother’s favourite. Why? What was it about their childhood that instigated them to grow-up into two such different people? Nothing we see supports that and Mr Allen never goes into it any further during the film.
Jasmine’s behaviour is so obviously erroneous and foolhardy yet no one does so much as lift a finger to help in any mature or beneficial way. Instead, they just remind her (and us) of her personality. Ms Blanchett’s performance is a risky one. In order to convey her Blanche-DuBois-decent-into-madness, she dilutes herself into operatic gestures and fluttering reactions. This works particularly well in the film’s last quarter, but Ms Blanchett never successfully sheds the idea of the character to reveal the character itself and, in the end, the performance remains a stunt.
Ms Hawkins, Mr Cannavale, Mr Baldwin, Mr Sarsgaard and Mr Stuhlbarg are not given enough room – or perhaps time (Mr Allen’s famously truncated, “few-takes” production periods often result in half-baked acting) – to breathe their characters to life. Only Andrew Dice Clay (yes, that Andrew Dice Clay), playing Ginger’s first husband who reluctantly invested his lottery earnings with Hal and still holds a grudge when it dissipated, seems to exist in the real world.
Everything in Blue Jasmine was implemented much more successfully in Mr Allen’s 1992 masterpiece Husbands and Wives. Like that film, Blue Jasmine is a sad and tragic depiction of how untrustworthy people so consistently are with one another. But what’s most tragic is that Woody Allen can’t trust his audience enough to articulate a ripe and intelligent delineation out of, what is clearly, a mess.