Over forty years into his career as a film director, Woody Allen keeps going. This has become both a kind of grim certainty and, only very rarely, a virtue. Over the past 15 to 20 years, Allen has been like a man trying to mount a sumptuous feast who finds himself thrashing around in an empty pantry. In lieu of something fresh, we get warmed-over dishes, whose recipes might not have been such a good idea in the first place.
Since 2005, he has frequently done what had long seemed unthinkable, set and film several of his projects somewhere other than the island of Manhattan. The first such effort, Match Point (2005), was his strongest in years, imbued with a gravity not seen in a Woody Allen film since Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Mixed results followed: Vicki Christina Barcelona (2008), a shiny wet dream of a film; the vastly-overrated Midnight in Paris (2011), a lot of half-baked philosophy, self-indulgence and artistic name-dropping hid behind some lovely artistic design.
But Woody continues to thrash. Landing in San Francisco of all places, he has produced another work of surprisingly gravity, Blue Jasmine. As is often the case with some of the best films by Joel and Ethan Cohen of recent years, Allen has written a script that benefits from others' stories. Woody Allen is credited as writer and director of Blue Jasmine, those credits spelled out, as usual, in the standard Windsor font, white on black, against a musical backdrop of early jazz. But the structure here is rather nakedly that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with an element of post-2008 Wall Street mixed in; this particular Blanche DuBois haunted in the manner of Ruth Madoff, wife of disgraced Ponzi schemer, Bernard Madoff.
Much as the quality of his films has fluctuated wildly over the past two decades, Woody Allen has maintained a keen eye for talent. Given the artistic flimsiness of some of those projects, that eye for fresh talent has seemed a bit vampiric at times; the restless, hungry old mastermind forever seeking new blood. However, with Blue Jasmine Allen has the combination of a strong story and a typically rich cast. Mainly to his credit, Woody Allen has Cate Blanchett.
Were Blue Jasmine nothing more than the great Cate and a bunch of San Francisco cab drivers pressed into service, the film would probably be worthwhile. Blanchett is typically flawless as the once high living woman come undone. Like Alec Baldwin, who plays husband Hal Francis, Blanchett has stage experience with A Streetcar Named Desire, having played Blanche DuBois in an Australian production of the Tennessee Williams play. But there's no pat histrionics from Blanchett. She has created a character specific and distinct with Jasmine Francis. Her conversation is most often ego-centric and one way. She's fueled here by martinis, calmed there by Xanex. But Allen and Blanchett have collaborated on a character pitiable, not hateful. I can't speak to Ruth Madoff's personality, virtues or lack thereof, but Jasmine Francis is no Leona Helmsley, not even Martha Stewart.
As with Blanche DuBois, Blue Jasmine's title character lands upon the doorstep of her sister and sets about causing friction between her sibling and the man in her life. It is perhaps a minor distinction, but whereas Blanche's own actions sent her fleeing to New Orleans where she had occasion to ride that now immortal street car line, Jasmine's only sin was blind trust in her husband and willful ignorance. Pitiable both characters might be, but there is a subtle compassion for Jasmine in Allen's script, more a hapless victim than a perpetrator.
Arriving broke and clueless in San Francisco, though loaded down with Louis Vitton bags from a first class flight across the country, Jasmine has to deal not only with the shock of her sister's very ordinary apartment that she shares with two young sons, but the nebulous prospect of her future. The unlikely plan that she finally hits upon, which sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) doesn't have the heart to dispel, is to become an interior decorator through on-line courses. Not that she really knows what on-line entails. Jasmine enrolls in a class to learn about the mysterious world of computers, and with great reluctance takes a receptionist job with a dentist to pay her way. As dire proof that clothes can make, or unmake the woman, she wears a dreary floral dental smock like so much sackcloth.
There is perhaps no more indicative moment in Blue Jasmine of its poor heroine's (or anti-heroine's) travails than when she agrees to have a drink with her employer. As the dentist, the not terribly smooth Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) confesses his attraction, Jasmine looks at him with tilted head and mouth agape, as if regarding some unappealing species of creature from a distant planet upon which she has alit. There's certainly a good bit of alcohol haze involved, but the look at once detached and horrified is all Cate Blanchett's, an eloquence of performance that requires no words.
When the untoward advances of Dr. Flicker become more pronounced back at the office, Jasmine has to walk out on the job. A more promising man needs to be met, and soon. Fortunately, a friend from computer class asks her to a party. The gathering has an unpromising start, which includes Jasmine muttering aloud to herself in a hallway, lapsed into a reflection on her past, much to the confusion of those standing nearby. But eventually she happens upon Dwight, a rather dashing diplomat, who looks with immediate favor upon Jasmine's sleek, well-put-together appearance and polished manner. This another ace bit of casting with Peter Sarsgaard as the foreign service officer and aspiring Congressman. Like Blanchett, Sarsgaard improves any film in which he is involved, bringing an energy and intelligence to most any character he inhabits. Like the role of Jasmine Francis, Dwight is somewhat a elegant and glib type, noting Jasmine's appearance not with the eye of someone who has real aesthetic refinement, but rattling off words like Chanel, Fendi, etc. - the brand names of the monied as seen from one who has no particular knowledge of or interest in such things. Fortunately, Peter Sarsgaard, like Cate Blanchett, is more than able to rise above ellisions in character, dialog that is stilted.
Woody Allen's bad habits are present in Blue Jasmine, but generally muted to a point where they don't distract. The dialog is often stilted, the details of lives vague at best, whether upper crust or working class. A writer's writer the man is not. There seemed to come a point in the mid-1990's when Allen - much as he would never own to it - seemed to respond to the criticism that his characters were out of touch not only with the whole of Manhattan, but certainly with the larger world without. The result, in films like Mighty Aprhrodite (1995) and Everyone Says I Love You (1996), were renderings of regular folk painfully broad, like second generation cliches. It's okay, Woody, one was tempted to exclaim to the screen. Go back to what you were doing before.
Cannavale is burdened with a tragic coiffure, the dark hair slicked back and the sides wont to flop down like lost bangs over the close-shaven sides. The wardrobe is equally a flag of sartorial pathos. However, having seen Andrew Dice Clay's ensemble (this can be said without value judgement) from a premiere of Blue Jasmine, I'm inclined to temper that last bit of criticism. Allen no doubt shares with these everymen a taste for boxing, basketball games and the like, much as he can't seem to put dialog in their mouths which seems consistently natural. At least Chili is allowed some dignity in the end. He rages a bit like a Kowalski-lite, but is one of the better partners a woman is likely to find in Blue Jasmine, faint praise though that may be.
The casting of Andrew Dice Clay is another unlikelihood in Blue Jasmine that pays off. Who would have that we could one day say, "that new Woody Allen film with Andrew Dice Clay." It seems now only slightly less likely than the possibility of mentioning that upcoming Michael Haneke film starring Adam Sandler. But the Diceman lives, adding some salt as Augie, ex-husband of Ginger, who loses a lottery windfall and all aspirations to get ahead in the world when he foolishly invests all his money with Hal Francis. Both Clay and Louis C.K (he a philandering sound engineer who turns Ginger's head for a time), comics from different decades, add dashes of regular guy flavor to their somewhat indistinct roles.
Allen clearly knows little more about business than he does what a mechanic in San Francisco might say. But with his script for Blue Jasmine, with regard to the financial chicanery of Hal Francis, he works in a broad outlines which easily enough adhere themselves to truths of which we're all too sadly aware. And he keeps the details to a minimum. The willful ignorance of his main character to the dubious particulars (as with her cluelessness with regard to the world of computers) serves the writer well.
With this Jasmine, this Blanche, Woody Allen has happened upon and constructed a character who is herself a construct. To see most of the female characters in his films for the past twenty years (that of Rebecca Hall in Vicky Christina Barcelona a rare exception), you could easily forget the real interest Allen once seemed to possess for complex, mature women; there was once something in his work that approached understanding. This was as true through some of his most famous work of the late 70's as it was with both his better known (Hannah and Her Sisters) and more obscure (Another Woman) films of the 1980s.
In Jasmine Francis, there is a kind of felicitous convergence for Woody Allen the writer. Perhaps he's lost interest in real, mature women who actually walk this earth. Perhaps not. But with this particular woman, forlorn in the wake of a storm of circumstance that has ripped all the foundations from her existence, there is a strange, superficial, nervous babble which seems true. There is some depth of understanding. An admirable compassion for a character, a woman who presents a broad target for ridicule. And there is Cate Blanchett. Tragic, magnetic, never descending to mere crazy mannerism as she finds an oblique flint of humanity among the shifting plates of a mind crumbling to madness.