Woody Allen has inspired some looking the other way in his career with pro-Woody factions taking responsibility for his ‘admittedly lesser work’ in a kind of round-robin pattern. “Okay, I’ll take Husbands and Wives (1992), you take Hollywood Ending (2002). Oh, I see Jim is dying to take Stardust Memories (1980). Who wants Melinda and Melinda (2004)? Guys, come on, please, somebody has to take it and I had Scoop (2006) last year.” That’s the kind of devotion that Allen inspires. Anti-Woody partisans have a similar, mutatis mutandis arrangement in disparaging they to the credit of Woody despite all objective reason. I expected Blue Jasmine (2013) to fall into the latter phenomenon, but, happily, everyone seems to realize how perfectly excellent it is. Three weeks into its run, I walked into a theater playing only Blue Jasmine on its three screens and found the 8:10 very well attended.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) can’t be alone. She has very dark thoughts when she’s alone. Hal (Alec Baldwin), her husband, went away for using some aggressive accounting techniques leaving Jasmine with almost nothing—how almost is unclear—forcing her to take up with a sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Ginger is, shall we say, a woman of modest ambitions and the men with whom she associates are, for lack of a better word, the salt of the Earth. She had been married to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), but when Hal lost all their money, that went away and now Ginger’s with Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine doesn’t approve, but she is restrained and, as a fish out of water, attempts to keep saturated in twisted martinis. What now for Jasmine? What can you do when you organized dinner parties, galas, and the like and your primary experience is in spending money? Set a path and keep your eye out for the exits, I suppose.
Blue Jasmine reminded me a lot of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) in that the tone is always pretty light but the film never feels like a comedy. Some of the best movies fit that description. All About Eve (1950), Lost in Translation (2003), Casablanca (1942), and Terms of Endearment (1983) (in increasing parts dark drama) wiggle their way between the genres and evade viewers “in the mood for”. Blue Jasmine crawls even deeper into the cracks by presenting simple—considerable, but simple—human dramas in a direct fashion where the sobs and pain are as often moments of levity as pathos. Sometimes it’s “ha, ha, aww”, but even then there’s a deliberate transition made. It’s this muddling of genres that I expected to trip up audience appreciation. Perhaps after weeks of things punching, clawing, and shooting other things, we were all ready for a little nuance. Had Blue Jasmine come out a few weeks later, perhaps people would be less inclined to enjoy.
The cast of Blue Jasmine does a better job of converting Allen into their own voices than in virtually any other Allen film. Perhaps that’s not giving enough credit to Allen for writing a mostly (comedy) gag-free screenplay. His spirit is there, but if you didn’t know he wrote the film, you would not have guessed it. What is unmistakable, however, is the—and forgive me—mise-en-scène. Everything you see and hear. The cinematographer is Javier Aguirresarobe (also of Vicky Cristina Barcelona), but Allen’s movies have looked the same—meaning no disparagement and excepting Match Point (2005)—since Melinda and Melinda (and possibly before as I have about a 15 year hole in my Allen viewing history). Ditto the music which dates back even further, adding, for thematic purposes, Rogers & Hart’s “Blue Moon”.
Maybe what’s missing is the Wood character. In Midnight in Paris (2011), Owen Wilson made a hybrid of the Woody character with his own to create something new and special. Blanchett doesn’t work on that level of persona, she’s an actress of whom I know virtually nothing off-screen. So the Jasmine character is a pure construction on the part of Allen and Blanchett with sources unknown (to us, the audience). Manic pixie dream girls to one side, I think this is absolutely the best character he has yet to put on screen. Blanchett’s done some wild stuff, so I hesitate before making generalizations in her direction, but I think you can safely place this performance in any conversation about her best work.
Allen is known for a number of things, relevantly prevalent are these: (1) productivity, (2) capturing Manhattan, and (3) similarity of elements. That is, he makes a lot of the same movies about Manhattan. That’s a mostly inaccurate conflation and a casual observer may mistake Blue Jasmine as a product of the same sin. Watching the movie should cure one of that, but the battle comes in the journey to the theater not the chat afterwards. Blue Jasmine is certainly about a New York City socialite and her family struggling with infidelities of various sorts, but the central dramas are psychology and class. Both themes are played out in a banal, slow burn where you’re just waiting for characters to blow their lid and let loose with the tears. Lids are blown and tears are loosed, but as in the movie Carnage (2011), it’s all grounded in reality where rich people are reserved and tears mean different things from those of the lower-middle class. It’s this realism—credit to Allen as well as the cast—that separates Blue Jasmine from his other credits. It’s not a chore to watch. Don’t get that impression. This is very easy viewing. It’s just very good as well as easy.