I have a friend who responds to every negative review I write by saying, “You just don’t like anything unless it’s Woody Allen.” I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen’s work. I was angry for months about the fact that I had to wait to see this film because it never came to theaters here. So, needless to say, I was hoping for another masterpiece. I didn’t get it, but I have said that part of why I think Woody Allen is so great is that his non-masterpieces are often still good films, and Blue Jasmine is a definite example.
In recent years, Woody Allen has vacillated between love letters to major cities and updates of classic literature. The fact that no city is name-checked in the title of Blue Jasmine is enough that we could tell where this film would go, and it is indeed a sly update of A Streetcar Named “Desire.”
There are a number of themes to the play, but Allen’s film distills it down to the simple idea that wealth and success are only facades for people who are no different than those they view as inferior. Suitably, he therefore tones down the awfulness of Stanley Kowalski and the bizarreness of his relationship with Stella and revamps the reasons behind her breakdown in order to allow both the wealthy, cultured world that she used to inhabit to share much in common with the shabby world her sister inhabits. It’s a smart reworking of a play that, as written, is too complex for a film, and it shows an admirable focus on its point that many directors would do well to pay attention to.
In the play, Blanche DuBois goes to live with her sister after her wealthy husband’s suicide, which is eventually revealed to have been precipitated by the revelation of the fact that he was having an affair with another man. Allen instead introduces Jasmine, who comes to live with her sister after her husband’s suicide that he committed in prison after being financially ruined when the government discovers some sort of financial fraud (the crime is really not explained at all, but fraud seems pretty likely). It’s a change that fuels much of Blue Jasmine, and makes its point quite clear: the wealthy and successful are no different than the “lower” classes, as evidenced by the rich scumbag that she married compared to the men, scumbags and decent, whom her sister Ginger meets along the way. We get examples of a decent-if-crude-and-selfish guy in Ginger’s current beau Chili and a seemingly-sweet-wife-cheater in Al, showing us that it’s not just Jasmine’s world that includes cheats and liars, but that they are still there.
And Jasmine attempts to rebuild her life from the bottom up but she doesn’t really know how to do it. She works at it, but never stops looking down her nose at her sister’s life and cannot resist the temptation to go for a shortcut in getting a man to take her back into high society without having to work at it herself. And, meanwhile, she is breaking down under the stress of her situation, losing herself in memories of her past pain to the point that she plays out the conversations aloud in public with no hint of self-awareness.
Acting-wise, there is really only one performance here, and it is a whale of a performance: Cate Blanchett is given a role that is only slightly altered from the Blanche DuBois role that has drawn comparisons to the title role in Hamlet and absolutely knocks it out of the park. The strain and stress of her everyday life, the ease with which she carries herself when she feels back and home in high society, the pain of her losses and breakdowns, and of course the bewilderment of her complete mental lapses are all clear on her face. More importantly, they feel real in a role that could easily be over the top (as Vivien Leigh has shown . . . ), making this woman’s breakdown all the more heartbreaking and powerful. Otherwise, no one really stands out in a good or bad way.
Visually, Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe unfortunately don’t do too much. Allen has never seemingly had too much of a visual imagination, with his best visual films all being photographed by either the Prince of Darkness (Gordon Willis) or Sven Nykvist, perhaps the two greatest cinematographers in Hollywood’s history. Aguirresarobe has himself handled the camera for a truly great film (Hable con Ella [Pedro Almodóvar, Spain 2002]), but he doesn’t have anywhere near the resume of those two giants, and it shows. Blue Jasmine is by no means a visual mess, but it is so conventional and lacking anything particularly interesting that there just isn’t much to say. It works well enough but doesn’t advance the point of the film at all, which is a shame for a film that has enough other elements to be excellent.
The score is made up entirely of already existing music, as is Allen’s norm, but it deserves mention for being a distracting score that rarely befits what is happening on screen. It often seems to be playing for laughs in a film that otherwise uses a bit of comedy but is overall rather serious. I don’t know if I’m misreading what Allen was intending somewhere or what, but this score is horrendous.
Overall, this is a good but not great film. It’s a bit thin and its lack of visual imagination and annoying score take away from a well-written story with a truly brilliant lead performance, but that all still adds up to at least an enjoyable experience.
Woody Allen List Update
This is the first Woody Allen film to come out since I started the blog, but I have long since watched every film of his career and ranked them all, a ranking which I update with every release. I do not include Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, USA 1972) even though Allen wrote and starred in both the film and the play because he did not direct the film or Don’t Drink the Water (Woody Allen, USA 1994) because it is a television film. This list is my personal ranking of all of Woody Allen’s films, and it probably leans a bit more on my personal enjoyment than it should (and thus I reshuffle it a bit every time), but I always have fun updating it, so here it is anyway:
- Annie Hall (USA 1977)
- The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985)
- Deconstructing Harry (USA 1997)
- Love and Death (USA 1975)
- Match Point (UK/Luxembourg 2005)
- Midnight in Paris (Spain/USA 2011)
- Sleeper (USA 1973)
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain/USA 2008)
- Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986)
- Stardust Memories (USA 1980)
- Take the Money and Run (USA 1969)
- Interiors (USA 1978)
- Zelig (USA 1983)
- Radio Days (USA 1987)
- Broadway Danny Rose (USA 1984)
- Anything Else (USA/France/UK 2003)
- Cassandra’s Dream (USA/UK/France 2007)
- Manhattan (USA 1979)
- Shadows and Fog (USA 1991)
- Husbands and Wives (USA 1992)
- Blue Jasmine (USA 2013)
- You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (USA/Spain 2010)
- Bananas (USA 1971)
- Manhattan Murder Mystery (USA 1993)
- Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (USA 1972)
- Melinda and Melinda (USA 2004)
- Crimes and Misdemeanors (USA 1989)
- Alice (USA 1990)
- To Rome with Love (USA/Italy/Spain 2012)
- Scoop (UK/USA 2006)
- Mighty Aphrodite (USA 1995)
- A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (USA 1982)
- Everyone Says I Love You (USA 1996)
- The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (USA/Germany 2001)
- Small Time Crooks (USA 2000)
- Sweet and Lowdown (USA 1999)
- Hollywood Ending (USA 2002)
- September (USA 1987)
- Bullets Over Broadway (USA 1994)
- Another Woman (USA 1988)
- Celebrity (USA 1998)
- What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (USA/Japan 1966)
- Whatever Works (USA/France 2009)