Matt: The conversation around every Woody Allen movie focuses, invariably and inevitably, on Woody Allen. Whether he makes too many movies. Whether he’s making movies about himself. (Allen has always insisted he doesn’t, even in the most seemingly autobiographical examples.) Whether he’s lost his comic edge. Whether he’s lost his touch for writing realistic dialogue. Whether he’s all washed up; whether he’s regained his former glory.
All that makes Blue Jasmine an unusual Woody Allen movie. For once, Allen himself doesn’t feel like the story. Jasmine’s star attraction isn’t the neurotic auteur, it’s the central character, Jasmine, and the great actress who brings her to life, Cate Blanchett. She gives a harrowing performance as a woman whose entire life collapses after her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) gets busted for Bernie Madoff-esque schemes. Reeling from the damage Hal inflicted on her and others, stripped of all her beloved material possessions, barely clinging to sanity, she tries to start a new life in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Tasha and Nathan, were you guys as blown away by Blanchett as I was? Or did this feel more like just another Woody Allen movie to you?
Nathan: I would not say that I was blown away by Blanchett, but I was mightily impressed with her, and felt that whatever truth Blue Jasmine possesses is attributable to her sometimes-stunning performance. I was blown away by the moments throughout Blue Jasmine when the title character’s brittle facade of haughty aristocratic authority breaks to reveal the broken, damaged, fundamentally lost woman underneath, even as I felt the film as a whole is as gratingly artificial and mannered as many of Allen’s lesser films. Part of this is attributable to the lead character: Blanchett’s disgraced society woman is a phony who tries to hold off the grim realities of her situation with a never-ending stream of breezy, self-aggrandizing chatter, but that doesn’t mean the film itself has to feel so goddamned phony. Though I’m realizing now that if you see Blue Jasmine as the title character’s subjective, distorted experience of her downfall, what I initially saw as its frustrating and distracting non-naturalism becomes poignant and appropriate. Blue Jasmine still feels like Woody Allen’s half-assed Streetcar Named Desire for the Bernie Madoff era, but at least he has a perfect Blanche in Blanchett.
Tasha: I’m glad I didn’t notice the Streetcar Named Desire resemblance until the end of the film, given how many of the character dynamics and story beats are broadly similar. This wasn’t “just another Woody Allen movie” to me, largely because Blanchett makes her character so convincing, nuanced, and personal that I didn’t ever hear Allen’s fussy voice when she was talking—a problem I’ve long had with Allen’s films, given their signature neurotic, overthinking Allen surrogates. But if I’d realized how much the film was a Streetcar riff beforehand, I would have been hearing Vivien Leigh’s voice in the role instead, and especially Marlon Brando’s voice whenever Ginger’s demanding, working-class boyfriend Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale) talks. I also would have anticipated the story’s ending, which would have been a shame, because one of the reasons I fell for this film was because I didn’t know where it was going. Allen may not intend for us to sympathize with Jasmine, given her profound selfishness, arrogance, and pride in her salad days, and her peevish, just-as-selfish neediness after her fall. But Blanchett makes the character fitfully sympathetic anyway, and I wasn’t sure how the film would treat her in the end. This is one of the few recent Allen films I’ve felt really stuck the landing. Are you guys with me on feeling that Allen sometimes has problems with endings, but that Blue Jasmine finds one that works?
Matt: A lot of recent Woody Allen movies, even the supposedly “serious” ones, feel like tossed-off trifles. (When you push a movie from conception to release in 10 months, that can happen.) But that final lingering close-up of Blanchett on the park bench is a real punch in the gut. There’s definitely a weight to this movie, and to Jasmine’s journey, that’s lacking in a lot of Allen’s work over the last 10 or 15 years.
But while I’d agree with you, Tasha, that Blanchett’s performance smooths out the bumps in Allen’s stilted dialogue, I’d also agree with you, Nathan, that the movie around her still often feels artificial and mannered. Looking through Allen’s filmography, the movie Blue Jasmine most reminds me of is actually Vicky Cristina Barcelona: some great performances, a lot of beautiful scenery, and a ton of clunky conversations that feel completely divorced from the realities of modern life. The only place in 2010s America where you hear the phrase “make love” is in a Woody Allen movie—and you hear it constantly. Maybe that’s why the best of his recent movies, at least in my opinion, is Midnight In Paris—because its story is deliberately, explicitly divorced from reality already.
Nathan: I’m with both of you in finding the ending poignant and satisfying. It’s a worthy payoff to the most compelling element of the movie: the protagonist’s descent into madness. But for me, the Allen movie Blue Jasmine resembles isn’t Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but Melinda And Melinda, another halfhearted shrug of a movie about the midlife crisis of a complicated, troubled woman. Melinda And Melinda’s silly gimmick has the title character’s life play out as both a comedy and a drama, separating its genres like a cinematic McD.L.T. But Blue Jasmine haphazardly combines comedy and drama in ways that suggest Blue Jasmine might benefit from a couple more drafts. Blanchett’s performance (and Louis C.K.’s small supporting role) is memorable, but in a forgettable film.
Matt: I’m not shocked Allen’s been talking up C.K.’s performance in interviews and hinting at the possibility of starring together in a future movie; C.K. looks right at home in Allen’s world, and like Blanchett, he has a great handle on that stiff dialogue. Given their respective creative output and career paths, you’d expect these two guys to be pretty simpatico on a creative level, and they clearly are. The prospect of a more extensive Woody/Louis collaboration is intriguing.
Tasha: Mixing comedy and drama is a longtime Allen routine in filmmaking; he was a comedian first, and he’s strongly inclined to find the dramatic emotion a largely comic movie, like Alvy Singer’s real distress over his relationship’s disintegration in Annie Hall. By comparison with his shticky, one-liner-filled comedies about people experiencing significant angst and displacement in their lives, I didn’t find Blue Jasmine funny at all. I see it as a straight drama, comedic mostly in the over-the-top characters. Jasmine is such a heel, and she starts the film basking in such extreme luxury and entitlement that it undercuts sympathy and drama. I’m curious to what degree you guys sympathized with her, something I went back and forth on throughout the movie. She’s a hateful, spoiled brat, but once she starts actively trying, once she does get a job and starts going to school and attempting to improve her situation, it stopped being about a caricature for me, and started being about a person. My uncertainty about where the film was going—and I love that in a movie above most things—mostly came from the question of whether Allen was trying to, or could possibly, redeem such a character in the end.
Matt: To a certain degree, Jasmine is yet another victim of her husband’s schemes and philandering, so it’s not impossible to sympathize with her. What makes it difficult, though, is the way she projects her own problems with men onto her sister’s husband and boyfriends. Jasmine constantly insults both of Ginger’s primary romantic interests—her ex, Augie (a surprisingly likable Andrew Dice Clay), and her current boyfriend, Chili—calling them losers and urging Ginger to dump them both. The only one of Ginger’s companions she likes is C.K.’s Al, who turns out to be another deceitful cheater like Hal. Burying her head in the sand and ignoring her own husband’s flaws is one thing; pushing her sister to ditch not one but two reasonably decent men to assuage her own feelings of inadequacy is another.
In spite of Jasmine’s own poor marital record, Ginger actually takes her advice throughout most of the movie; she only wises up at the end, after Al confesses the truth about his marriage. But it takes her so long to get to that point. Were you guys as frustrated as I was that that relationship was so one-sided? Why the hell does she not only put up with her monstrous sister, but actually listen to her suggestions for as long as she does?
Also, is it just a funny coincidence that the two cheating bastards in this movie are named Hal and Al? That’s a strange choice.
Tasha: I’m with you on wishing Ginger would wise up and stand up for herself, but I think the movie does plenty of work toward establishing why she doesn’t: She has low self-esteem. She feels their adopted parents loved Jasmine more. She sees Jasmine as successful, talented, and tasteful; she goes out of her way to express admiration for her sense of design and decor. And Ginger often seems easily swayed, particularly by the men in her life. That said, the movie does give her a backbone; she doesn’t stand up to Jasmine enough, but she isn’t a doormat with Augie or Chili either, and she doesn’t make any attempt to hang onto Al once she realizes he’s a cheat.
What I wish instead was that Blue Jasmine made some effort toward justifying her kids as characters. As it is, they’re irritants for Jasmine and expository tools in several scenes, but other than that, they apparently disappear into a storage closet when they aren’t needed. Ginger barely speaks to them. I would have appreciated some sense of how she feels about them. They’re noisy, nosy brats—is she struggling to keep up with disciplining them while holding down a job? Or does she like their independence and confidence? Having some sense of that relationship would have really helped in detailing a character who sometimes seems weakly drawn.
Nathan: I sympathized with Jasmine’s struggles to carve out a new identity for herself without the cornerstones of her old life, even if the particulars and the specifics of her world and the people who inhabit it ring as false as her sister’s working-class world. I’ve long found Allen’s depiction of blue-collar characters condescending and reductive. They inhabit a realm devoid of subtext, where everyone blurts out exactly what they’re feeling at any given moment. (Half of Augie’s dialogue amounts to variations on “I resent your adopted sister, whom I find snobby and stuck up, and I’m angry her husband ruined our chance at bettering our lot by swindling us out of our money.”) I empathized with Jasmine and her downward spiral, particularly in the final scene, but that’s the only aspect of this film that felt honest or earned.
Matt: The other aspect that I thought felt pretty honest, or at least effective, is the theme of regret, which has been a crucial component of every Woody Allen movie since at least You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. In each of his last four movies, most or all of the lead characters make choices they wish they could take back, and then spend the rest of the film grappling with their decisions, or reflecting back on the past. As we mentioned earlier, Allen refuses to acknowledge any kind of autobiographical leanings in his work, and for all we know, he could be right. But there’s something moving about the penitent tone of these movies. They might otherwise feel inauthentic, but the sense of remorse feels totally genuine.
Tasha: I’ll never believe Allen’s films aren’t personal, but I absolutely understand his desire to not discuss and analyze his own life in relation to his films; he’s spent much of his life in therapy, he doesn’t need extra therapy from the media. But I’m with you on thinking there’s a mournful tone to his movies lately, and a theme about looking back on past decisions. I wouldn’t take this as a sign that he’s regretting any one specific decision in life, though. The older people get, the more they tend to examine the paths not taken; it may just be a theme that would resonate with any 77-year-old. And regardless of the theme, he does keep finding very idiosyncratic ways to express it, takes that don’t necessarily come directly from his life, or his age.
One of the things that’s most striking to me about Blue Jasmine’s take on regret, though, is that Allen never really shows us a turning point before Jasmine was a brittle, delicate hothouse flower. She makes plenty of decisions worth regretting: her aggressive drinking, the way she looks the other way as Hal makes shady deals, the way she lures Ginger and Augie into a bad deal, the fatal phone call. But she was damaged and hapless before any of this began, and so many of these choices feel pre-ordained by the kind of person she’s become. At its cruelest, Blue Jasmine implies she was always shallow and silly and unskilled, not really suitable to be anything but a fussy socialite, which makes the regret theme even more painful. The path not taken is a misery, but the path that was never even an option is absolutely maddening—possibly, at the end of the film, literally.