Blanchett Wondrous in Woody’s Humdrum Blue Jasmine

Blanchett Wondrous in Woody’s Humdrum Blue Jasmine August 2, 2013

Review of Blue Jasmine, Directed by Woody Allen

If you were asked to describe a typical Woody Allen movie, what would you say? The prolific writer/director is probably best known for comedies like Annie Hall, which won the Best Picture Oscar, but Allen also has a serious side, explored in films such as Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s had notable successes but also numerous failures across genres, falling short when he fails to craft compelling stories.

Such inconsistency might be forgivable considering Allen’s career has spanned nearly five decades, but Allen’s “misses” in recent years have far exceeded his artistic “hits”—evidence of a filmmaker in decline. Who beyond Allen’s most dedicated fans remembers (or has seen) The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Anything Else (2003) or Melinda and Melinda (2004)?

So it was heartening to receive advance word that Allen’s new film, Blue Jasmine, was  one of the filmmaker’s periodic “comeback” films, chiefly because of a memorable lead performance from Cate Blanchett. Would the film, once seen, support the hype?

In one important sense, yes, it does. But overall, the film manifests too many typical Allen weaknesses to be placed alongside his great films.

Less a comedy than a drama, Blue Jasmine is a break from the frothy Midnight in Paris (2011) (Allen’s biggest box-office hit) or larks such as Scoop (2006) or Small Time Crooks (2000). Yet it’s not as unremitting in its moral exploration as Match Point (2005) or the under-rated Cassandra’s Dream (2007), and more recognizably human than Allen’s caustic, misanthropic Whatever Works (2009).

With Blue Jasmine, Allen lets us get to know a panoply of character types—blue-collar, upper class, hard working, criminal—many of whom feel like characters we’ve seen before, if not always in Allen’s films. Blanchett is the departure. In promoting the film, Allen has said he didn’t try to direct Blanchett, who is such a high-caliber actress that Allen simply stood out of her way. However, Allen’s lack of direction shows. The radiant Blanchett, who has strung together a series of amazing performances in such films as Elizabeth, Babel and I’m Not There, performs as though she’s in a different film than the other Blue Jasmine characters. Such a performance would normally work against a film, but with her character—the Jasmine of the title, changed from Jeanette because, she says, her birth name had “no panache”—losing her grip on normality, the performance works, even if much of the surrounding film does not.

Jasmine is in trouble. Her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), has defrauded investors, and her life as a New York socialite has come to an abrupt end. Her world turned upside down, a broke Jasmine shows up on the doorstop of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in need of a place to stay.

Ginger is no Jasmine. Although they grew up together, the blonde-haired Jasmine and brunette Ginger have different biological parents and have pursued radically different lifestyles. Jasmine is attracted to wealthy phonies like Hal, while Ginger goes downscale, dating tough talkers like Chili (Bobby Cannavale) after her marriage to Augie (a strong, career redefining performance from comedian Andrew Dice Clay) falls apart.

Ginger loves her sister but isn’t quite sure how to relate to her. Not helping matters is the continuing strain placed on the sisters’ relationship after Augie and Ginger lose $200,000 in lottery winnings to one of Hal’s schemes.

Jasmine’s downfall hasn’t quite hit her: She’s flown first-class to see Ginger (“I splurge from habit,” Jasmine explains), and she drinks excessively and pops pills as a way of coping with her situation. Yet from the film’s opening moments, we sense Jasmine’s problems may be beyond the reach of self-medication. “She couldn’t stop babbling about her life,” a woman tells her companion after being subjected to Jasmine’s endless thoughts and reminiscences.

It’s not long before we realize any comedy in Blue Jasmine will be more than offset by the tragedy of Jasmine’s disintegration. She’s unable to break free from thinking of herself as the center of attention, even when onlookers are worried, not enraptured, by Jasmine’s “babbling.”

In her more lucid moments, Jasmine learns computer skills, takes a job as a receptionist for a sleazy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and pursues a relationship with a diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard).

Blanchett’s posturing in the face of an impending, inevitable breakdown is fascinating to watch, but part of the problem with Blue Jasmine is that its “normal” characters are so unappealing and one-dimensional. They offer little beyond blue-collar badgering. It’s also difficult not to squirm at Allen’s dialogue during the film’s multiple marital spats without wondering, rightly or wrongly, how much might be based on Allen’s own memories of his relationship with Mia Farrow.

All of which makes Blue Jasmine rather uninteresting when it’s not downright uncomfortable. The characters, as are all too typical of much of Allen’s work, don’t develop much after the first 15 minutes. Hawkins, a wonderful actress in Happy-Go-Lucky and Made in Dagenham, holds her own in a much less showy role than Blanchett while Clay makes a (too brief) impression as Augie. But other supporting actors (Louis C.K., even Baldwin) barely register.

The movie leaves us thinking about the broken-down, “babbling” Jasmine—and not much else. For some that will be enough, but others will long for a film full of fleshed out characters rather than a showcase highlighting one performance. For all of Blanchett’s power, a lot of talent in Blue Jasmine goes underused, making Blue Jasmine more similar than different from the middling, forgettable films that comprise so much of Allen’s output in the past couple of decades.

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