Received movie-going wisdom has it that late-period Woody Allen films are very hit and miss. Looking at his largely successful mid-to-late 90s period, as well as some of the gems of recent years, I’d say that late-period Woody Allen films hit the mark far more often than they miss it. Sure, last year’s To Rome With Love was a disappointing, Allen-by-numbers affair, which critics suggested felt incomplete and rushed, a direct result of the writer-director’s self-imposed one-film-per-year heavy workload and fast turnaround time. But the past five years, to pick a completely arbitrary period of time, have also seen the release of the passable You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger and the underrated, low-key Whatever Works, as well as the more celebrated crowd-pleasers Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight In Paris. (Let’s not cheapen this opening paragraph by mentioning Cassandra’s Dream, though, eh?)
So anyway, here’s a fact. Blue Jasmine is the best of the recent bunch by far, and while it fails to match the very finest moments of Allen’s long, rollercoaster career, it certainly compares favourably to many of his much-loved melodramas.
The Jasmine of the title is played by Cate Blanchett, who is absolutely superb here, and will certainly be in with a shout for the Best Actress Shiny Gong next year following this standout performance. A New York socialite fallen on hard-ish times, Jasmine is attempting to recover from the end of her marriage and subsequent financial woes by staying with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in Ginger’s cramped but cosy San Francisco apartment. Jasmine’s extravagant old lifestyle of luxurious homes, cocktails round the swimming pool, Upper East Side designer shopping sprees and polo matches is shown in a series of flashbacks, which also detail the philanderings of ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). Hal is a Bernie Madoff-esque financier, and we learn that his bending of the law (to which Jasmine largely turns a blind eye) has led to an FBI investigation and, subsequently, imprisonment.
Broke and breaking down, Jasmine settles her nerves with a near constant mix of Stolichnaya and Xanax. She is losing the plot, gradually, as a result of events with Hal and her own attempts to make ends meet in New York after their break up, and she is regularly seen talking to herself in public. She makes vague plans to turn her life around and reinvents herself as an interior designer, while employed as a dentist’s receptionist, but she has previously been handed everything on a plate and shies away from doing hard work. Meanwhile, she snobbishly passes judgement whenever possible on Ginger’s home and choice of blue collar partner while completely missing – or refusing to acknowledge – their relative moral decency in comparison to her own ex. Ginger has two kids by handyman Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), but their marriage failed after a lottery win was mis-invested by Hal, who lost all of their funds. In the present day, Ginger’s boyfriend and soon-to-be live-in partner is mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a rough-around-the-edges type, but ultimately a decent, caring guy.
Jasmine, though, can only see failure, and she constantly berates her sister for settling down and failing to better her lot. The impressionable Ginger listens, and begins an unnecessary affair of her own, with home entertainment salesman Al (Louis CK). Jasmine’s love life, meanwhile, appears to take a turn for the better when, after fighting off the unwanted and clumsily aggressive advances of her dentist employer Dr Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), she meets ambitious politician Dwight (Peter Saarsgard). However, Jasmine proves to be her own undoing, mixing deceit with an unbecoming and forthright sense of entitlement; added to this is the fact she has not been able to fully deal with the effects of the events of the past. Constantly mentioning Hal in conversation, she finds that the process of cracking up is a difficult one to halt.
Blanchett’s performance here is extremely convincing. From the opening monologue unburdened to a fellow air traveller right the way through to the haunting, solemn closing scene, she fills the screen with this partly-unsympathetic character, ultimately managing to wrest some empathy from the viewer in the final act despite the fact Allen revels in showing the very worst of Jasmine’s traits. She is more-than-ably helped by the supporting cast. Baldwin is excellent as the arrogant bigshot bastard, and Hawkins is the perfect foil for Blanchett as the simpler, well-meaning sister, her English accent as well disguised as Blanchett’s Australian one. Cannavale, Saarsgard and Clay are all entirely convincing as the other men in Ginger and Jasmine’s lives, and even those with limited screen time do well: Max Casella, for example, has just one scene as Chili’s friend Eddie, and you long for his awkward encounter with Jasmine to continue.
Together, each character’s conversations (and, eventually, arguments) with Jasmine slowly bring out her foibles, her petty snobbery, her neuroses and her prejudices. The character is classic Allen, a tragic figure unable to free herself from her own clutches, despite her frequent protestations that she wishes to turn over a new leaf and start afresh.
There are plenty of other Allen hallmarks, on top of the oft-arguing characters and the crisp, fast-moving dialogue; a checklist would include ticks by the following standards: busy interiors, the breakdown of relationships, the satirical take on New York high society, the classic jazz soundtrack and the simple title and end credits. There’s even an awkward moment where a few characters bump into each other in the street at a key time (and as always that doesn’t work well). While you could argue that these are merely signs that point to a well-honed style, it’s actually a little frustrating, and the criticism that Allen treads water from film to film still remains. Would an entirely different look, or a more unusual structure, be all that difficult for Allen to produce? Predictability brings comfort, but it also makes you wonder if more time spent in development or post-production might yield creative surprises. Allen has never forgotten his stage roots.
That all said, the way he films Blanchett is itself fascinating. Allen opts for a lot of close ups, picking up every tic and reaction and minute change of expression his leading lady proffers. The quality, and occasional subtlety, of Blanchett’s performance would have been noted even with a more distant focal length, but the fact that she fills the screen so often and every detail is captured, every flick of the hand and every raising of the eyebrow, certainly helps illuminate the actor’s work.
It’s interesting that there are no shots that show off the glory of Manhattan, yet Allen paints an almost loving picture of the geography of San Francisco, something which he perhaps didn’t quite manage with his other film set in The Golden City, Play It Again, Sam. With a woozy, sunny haze falling across the streets and on the character’s faces, San Francisco looks warm and inviting in comparison to the cold grays of Avenues Madison and Fifth. This is a character-driven drama, and the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe doesn’t distract attention away from the acting unduly, but it’s worth mentioning that the film is pleasant on the eye. (Aguirresarobe previously worked with Allen as Director of Photography on Vicky Cristina Barcelona.)
At times it is a sad, poignant movie, and it treats the subject of stress and its effects on mental health and familial relationships with a necessary seriousness. Many have already compared it to A Streetcar Named Desire, and there are obvious parallels in terms of the plot and the characters. Jasmine, with nerves shredded and former glories turning to distant memories, is a modern day version of Blanche DuBois, and it surely cannot be mere coincidence that Blanchett played the character on stage in Sydney five years ago, or that Alec Baldwin has twice played the role of Stanley Kowalski – most recently in a mid-90s TV movie. The famous, ironic line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” could just as easily be spoken by Jasmine at the film’s end, with its suggestion of what will eventually become of the character.
Given the subject matter, fans of Allen’s comedy will appreciate the fact it has to be light on bellylaughs, but it is as witty as you would expect an Allen-penned social satire dealing with morals and class to be. There is plenty in this well-paced, brilliantly-acted piece to keep audiences smirking, and on this evidence the suggestion that Allen is incapable of reaching former glories holds no truck whatsoever. If he continues to make films as good as this, you can forgive him the odd turkey or two every five years.
There have been countless attempts over the years to write Allen off, to suggest that his best years and best films are long behind him. Blue Jasmine isn’t a definitive answer to all the naysayers, by any means, but it’s a measured response to those who feel he disappoints all-too-regularly. This is a very, very good late-period Woody Allen film, with a standout central performance and excellent support. Well worth seeing.
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Saarsgard
Running Time: 98 Minutes