Blue Jasmine, and the Curious Career of Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, has received mixed reviews from the daily critics, who don’t seem to know quite what to make of it. It’s one of Allen’s most serious films to date, and one of his most unforgiving, both of itself, and of society as a whole. Allen’s career has had a long and curious trajectory, starting out with simply comedy films, and then romances, but now, in late life, he’s thrown any pretense of entertainment out the window in pursuit of a vision so dark, and so nihilistic, that it makes even Thomas Vinterberg’s recent film The Hunt look hopeful by comparison.
Allen started out his directorial career in 1966 by taking a mediocre Japanese gangster film and dubbing it into an English parody, releasing it through American International Pictures, with a few hastily shot sequences of the rock group The Lovin’ Spoonful thrown in as a sop to audiences. It was funny, but labored – released as What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (to capitalize on the success of What’s New Pussycat? , which Allen appeared in and co-wrote), the film garnered positive reviews as a stunt project – as more than one critic observed, Allen had managed to make a movie without making a movie, simply using someone else’s work to get a few laughs.
Then came Take the Money and Run in 1969, a conventional caper comedy in which Allen learned to intercut footage of supposed “talking head” witnesses to the various crimes his character commits within the film’s narrative – something that his editor more or less showed him how to do – and then a string of similarly light fare, such as Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), the futuristic comedy Sleeper (1973) and then what many critics consider his “golden era,” with the romances Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), and Stardust Memories (1980), all of which left me completely cold. They seemed forced, sentimental, and despite their aim for something beyond conventional narrative, contrived primarily to seduce the audience into an elegiac longing for the supposedly halcyon past.
An admirer of Ingmar Bergman from his youth, Allen also tried his hand at more serious fare such as Interiors (1978), but the film came off as a copy of Bergman’s work, rather than an inspired riff on it; and with subsequent films, Allen became more and more the nostalgic entertainer, with a slightly bitter twist, in films such as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), with occasional, and deeply misogynistic forays into strained seriousness, as Andrew Sarris famously phrased it, with films like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
Trifles such as Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Small Time Crooks (2000), and the particularly disappointing The Curse of The Jade Scorpion (2001) did nothing to burnish his reputation, but as the 20th century faded into the distance and the 21st took hold, something started to happen. With 1997’s Deconstructing Harry (loosely based on Bergman’s Wild Strawberries ), his vision began to get darker, more analytical, less interested in pleasing his audiences, and after years of personal psychoanalysis, more genuinely introspective.
Through it all, Allen keeps turning out a film a year, pays all his actors union scale, and shoots on modest budgets, but he’s one of the few original and independent directors left today who is beholden to no one but himself, so everyone is anxious to work with him, no matter what direction his projects may take. Yet his audiences don’t seem to have grown up with him; they still want the Woody Allen who specialized in May/December romances, and fantasies of life in Manhattan so removed from actual existence as to be capitalist fantasies.
Indeed, several critics went so far as to describe these later films as “fake Woody Allen movies,” as if they had his name on them, and his signature typeface and jazz soundtrack, but that they were the work of someone else, someone they didn’t know or like, someone who had somehow appropriated Woody Allen’s name, but not his gifts.
Match Point (2005), almost a remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors, didn’t really represent an advance in his career, though the shrewd casting of Scarlett Johansson – Allen has always had a gifted eye for casting – helped ensure the box-office success of the film. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) was practically a promotional tourist film extolling the beauties of Spain, as was To Rome With Love (2012), a similarly compromised project.
So when Midnight in Paris came out in 2011, with its slight, whimsical tale of a blocked novelist who is magically transported to 1920s Paris each night, and meets everyone from Salvador Dali to Gertrude Stein in the process, audiences embraced it as a “return to form” for the director, and the film grossed more than $150,000,000, making it one of Allen’s biggest hits.
I liked Midnight in Paris well enough on first viewing, and Owen Wilson inhabits the role of the somewhat clueless protagonist effortlessly, but now that I’ve seen it a bunch of times, it doesn’t really hold up. It’s sweet, it has a simple moral – you can’t live in the past – but it’s primarily an entertainment, with only superficial depth. So as I approached Blue Jasmine, with its wildly differing reviews trailing behind it like so many tin cans tied to a string, I wondered what to expect.
Well, the result is shattering, at least to me, and it’s nice to see that Allen has finally, seemingly, foresworn any attempt to please his viewers in a more conventional manner, except of course in the casting, which works both on a promotional and an aesthetic level as well. It’s his most accomplished and effective film in years, and easily his least compromising; this is a vision of life as hell, unforgiving and caustic, even if it is – and it very much is – a mash up of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Bernie Madoff affair.
It doesn’t matter; Allen has created a film that sets the heart on trial, and manages to make us care for that most unlikely of protagonists; a spoiled young woman who has no idea how to cope with the collapse of her pampered life. She’s a modern Blanche DuBois in every respect – fragile, deluded, helpless, perpetually depending upon what Tennessee Williams famously termed “the kindness of strangers.”
Cate Blanchett, giving an absolutely mesmerizing and spot-on performance – made all the more difficult by the fact that she’s on screen for nearly every scene of the film – stars as the film’s title character, Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis, married in the film to the utterly charming and yet completely amoral Harold “Hal” Francis (smoothly played by Alec Baldwin, who really strolls through the film, more or less playing himself).
Hal is the Bernie Madoff clone, a swindler who keeps Jasmine seduced by a series of extravagant gifts and a lavish lifestyle, even as he sleeps with every other woman in sight, and conducts an elaborate Ponzi scheme that brings down everyone around him, including himself. The structure of the film is somewhat conventional – the present, then a flashback, the present, another flashback – but with each new return to the past, we get more information and depth, so that in the end the device seems not so much contrived as absolutely necessary. To really view the film, we have to see Jasmine in both the past and the present, to see for ourselves how Jasmine’s own willful disregard of what’s going on around her, coupled with her weakness for luxury, brings about her eventual, gradual, and catastrophic undoing.
The film opens with Jasmine flying first class to live with her estranged sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, talking nonstop to an older woman (Joy Carlin) during the flight about her past, but we get the sense that there’s no real connection between them, and we’re right; at the San Francisco airport, the woman desperately hails her husband (Richard Conti) and makes as graceful an exit as possible; she’s never met Jasmine before in her life. But Jasmine is so lonely, so damaged, so desperate, that she’ll talk to anyone – a pattern that repeats throughout the film.
As the film unreels, we discover that Ginger, previously married to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly good), has agreed to let Jasmine stay with her for a while as she “gets back on her feet” despite that fact that Jasmine has always treated her like dirt, and that Hal swindled Augie and Ginger out of $200,000 Augie won in the lottery, his one big chance at moving up out of the blue collar world. Ginger, who works at local supermarket bagging groceries, is now seeing the boorish Chili (Bobby Cannavale, as the film’s Stanley Kowalski character), who is suspicious of Jasmine on sight, and rightly recognizes that she’s taking advantage of Ginger.
Jasmine has no money, no prospects, and no skills – as she repeatedly intones, she was studying to be an anthropologist in college, but left in her third year when Hal entered her life, and began courting her aggressive extravagance. She doesn’t even know how to use a computer – not even a Mac – and is at a complete loss as to what to do with her life now that Hal’s fraudulent empire has collapsed. She does, however, have dreams of becoming an interior decorator. After all, doesn’t she have exquisite taste?
To pay the bills, Jasmine takes a job as a receptionist for a local dentist, Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), but his continual sexual harassment forces her to leave the job, and it seems that all is lost until, at a party, she runs into the patrician and wealthy Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard, immaculate as always), a diplomat who dreams of a future in politics, and sizes up Jasmine as the perfect trophy wife. Jasmine is perfectly willing to go along with this, of course, because it’s what she’s been all her life, and it represents the possibility of a return to a life of wealth and power.
But Jasmine is, perhaps understandably, not forthcoming about her past life with Hal – whom, we learn in flashbacks, was arrested by the FBI for his financial misdeeds after Jasmine, not so clueless after all in the wake of discovering Hal’s many dalliances, informs on him, resulting in Hal’s subsequent suicide in prison, and the complete estrangement of Jasmine and her son, Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) – and invents a past for herself that has no relation to reality.
When Dwight discovers Jasmine’s true past through a chance encounter with Augie, just as Dwight and Jasmine are about to buy their wedding rings, he dumps her in a rage, and she returns to Ginger’s apartment, shattered and delusional. Ginger, in the meantime, has been going through her own traumas – momentarily dumping the coarse Chili for seemingly “nice guy” Al (Louis C.K., in a nothing role, giving a nothing performance) – a sound engineer who presents himself to Ginger as single when he is, in fact, married.
At the film’s end, Chili and Ginger are reconciled, and even though Chili is, indeed, a simple, crude man whose future will probably be an endless series of low paying gigs as an auto mechanic, and Ginger will keep bagging groceries, they seem happy; resigned to their precarious existence, but bound together by true affection.
Jasmine, on the other hand, has now gone completely around the twist, and leaves Ginger’s apartment for good, telling Chili and Ginger that she and Dwight are engaged. Wandering into the street, Jasmine sits down on a park bench, and begins blathering about her past to a woman (Katy Tiemann) sitting next to her, who quickly moves away.
It’s clear what the future holds for Jasmine now; nothing. She will become a bag lady, or get swept up in the other refuse of the city, and the kindness of strangers will be of no help to her now. There is no kindness left; only strangers. Allen plays all of this in a flat, “never apologize never explain” fashion, presenting one horrific scene after another with such searing, clinical impact that the screen itself seems to disappear, and we’re confronted with spectacle of true madness, destruction, and hopelessness.
All in all, Blue Jasmine reminds me of Amos Kollek’s little seen but utterly brutal film Sue (1997), in which the title character, played by Anna Levine, falls between the cracks of society in Manhattan in a similarly self-destructive fashion. In both films, one should feel sorry – if one doesn’t, then I’d disagree with that – for each character.
Both Sue and Jasmine have never really had the chance to define themselves, or find their true vocation, because they relied too much upon others to care for them, which never works. You’re on your own in the world, and trust is a hard thing to come by, because so often the system fails, people fail, and the very institutions and services that are supposed to be of aid fail as well.
Blue Jasmine is ultimately a cautionary tale unlike anything else Woody Allen has ever attempted; in this film, Manhattan is not some fabled storybook land of the present, or a nostalgic location of the past. It’s a city where people steal, lie, cheat and seek to destroy each other, where the sociopathic pursuit of wealth and power cancels out all human relationships.
That’s the real Manhattan today, under the reign of Wall Street, and the rapacious greed that defines the city. It’s a place where everything has a price, everything is disposable, and all relationships are fraught with peril. Not exactly laugh-a-minute material, but it’s all the better for it, and it’s new terrain that Allen is now setting out to put on the screen, as his career nears its end, and New York City, more than ever, is divided into the super wealthy and those who just get by – the real Manhattan, not the dream world one.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012). He is at work on a book entitled The Eternal Spectator: Movies, Myth and Memory, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.
Read also: Matthew Sorrento, “Old and New: Woody’s Blue Jasmine“.