The map of Woody’s New York tracked his own meandering transformation from outsider to insider. The finest of his east coast films rise as landmarks that climb ever higher on the city’s skyline marking his own ascent to Manhattan’s best addresses. He reached the peak of that exclusive plateau where he wanted to be — and then, after finally arriving, he left it. Now in Blue Jasmine he looks back and condemns the club he so badly wanted to join and in so doing has made his best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Blue Jasmine is the first of Allen’s late-career films to revisit potent themes of conscience, money and morality — his trademark obsessive questioning which got diluted after more mundane personal anxieties consumed his loftier philosophic ones.
Many fans of Woody Allen’s films were shocked to find a man of seemingly high moral character take such a dramatic fall when he fell in love with, and married, the sister of his own son (Soon-Yi Previn the adopted daughter of his 12-year paramour, Mia Farrow). After that, Allen’s films ceased to seek such stringent moral probing. Perhaps he felt like a hypocrite. After that, Allen’s films ceased to seek such stringent moral probing. Perhaps he felt like a hypocrite. Perhaps he was trying to rationalize and resolve his own behavior with his sense of right and wrong. Either way, he seems to have finally reconciled it in his own mind and has returned, with Blue Jasmine, to the much-needed moral high ground, but this time there is no fuzzy ambiguity, no internal debate about whether murder is still a crime if no one ever catches you. What Bernie Madoff and the other banksters of Wall Street did to the working class was wrong. Period. Wrong when measured against the law, wrong when measured against our collective sense of justice.
Throughout much of Woody Allen’s film career his view of the upper class has been one of detached adoration. The worst crime for the young redheaded kid from Brooklyn would have been to never escape his middle class roots, to never become part of the upper east side, to always be one of the schlubs who ride the “ugly train” in Stardust Memories.
Indeed, he’s never much cuddled up to the well educated — or pseudo intellectuals who pepper his films (“I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype”) but over the years his films began to revolve around the upper crust, even if it was just to show their weaknesses. In Blue Jasmine, however, he seems to have come to the conclusion that the whole lot of them should be overthrown, French revolution style.
It is a mistake, as some have done, to compare Blue Jasmine with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. And it’s all too easy to see Jasmine (in the kind of potent performance that Cate Blanchett herself may never top) as Blanche. After all, Blanchett already played Ms. DuBois on Broadway before taking on Jasmine. But to view it that way is to completely miss the whole point of Jasmine and Allen’s film. Blanche DuBois represented beautiful things in a dying world. Stanley Kowalski was representative of the vulgarity of the modern world. Blanche is partly the fallen South, yes, but she is more than that. Perhaps she is a fraud and a dreamer and someone who prefers fantasy, just as Jasmine does, but to be clear — one is to be pitied and the other deserving of her punishment.
The biggest difference is that Jasmine would like to be a tragic, sympathetic flower like Blanche — but in fact she is a viper. It is no one’s fault but her own that she is in the mess she’s in. Unlike Stella in Streetcar, Jasmine’s sister is not simply a woman brought down from the upper class to marry a common man. Jasmine’s sister Ginger was exiled into that class partly due to her own sister’s actions. Jasmine screws Ginger over — but Blanche never does any such thing to Stella. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true. Stella chooses Stanley and her raw earthly delights over her sister’s more cultivated path.
As Jasmine, Blanchett reaches so far down and comes up with such an original, breathtaking character, she may be Allen’s most throughly realized heroine since Annie Hall. Allen has always been at his best when his films center around women. Another Woman starring Gena Rowland is one of his most underrated films. Of course, you’ll see the perfect example of Allen’s class escalation with that film; it is as though he has finally merged to that world of university professors, good wine, beautifully designed homes in Connecticut; and of course, in reality, he has.
Blanchett’s Jasmine is someone who is barely clinging to sanity and in fact is given to fits of talking out loud, reliving the memorable moments of her former life. She’s a babbler on the road to all-out madness. The film is deceptive in its focus on Jasmine because you naturally assume she’s meant to be a sympathetic character. But just as we are drawn in to the lead character’s plight in Crimes and Misdemeanors, so to are we drawn in to Jasmine’s own self-delusion about who she really is and how she got there. The more we see, the less we like.
Were it not for Blanchett’s marvelous performance, which will go down in film history as one of the best ever, the film might have been a light-ish satire on the 1%. But Blanchett lifts it into balls-out drama; there is no wiggle room here. Allen is being very specific about who got screwed over in the Bernie Madoff fiasco and it certainly wasn’t Madoff’s wife.
Blue Jasmine vaults to become one of the best films of 2013, and certainly among Woody Allen’s best, though it probably won’t be a favorite since it isn’t really funny so much as tragic. But we need films like this to remind us of what we lived through, what we’re still facing, who we’ve become as a nation, which people should be held accountable, and how much indecent greed should deemed unacceptable in a just society. No, it isn’t Blanche Dubois who mirrors Jasmine so much as Marie Antoinette.
The cast is flawless across the board this time around, which isn’t always the case in Allen’s films. Andrew Dice Clay as Auggie is a revelation. With his greased back hair, his humble demeanor we assume Allen is making his typical fun of this lower class heathen. But he isn’t really. Of all of the characters, the only two who come off admirably in the film are Auggie and Ginger (a wonderfully vulnerable Sally Hawkins).
There is a distinct class of extraordinary actresses working today and none of them are under the age of 30. Meryl Streep is one. Viola Davis, another. Glenn Close, Nicole Kidman, Judy Davis, to name a few. But Cate Blanchett is right at the top of that list. She should have won the Oscar for her portrayal of Bob Dylan in I’m not There. I don’t know if she’ll win for Blue Jasmine — she very well might — but whether she gets a trophy for it or not, whether the voting Academy falls in love with her this year or not, nothing can take away from this moving, funny, brutal and at times, gorgeously ugly performance.
It stings that both leads in this film had to come from other countries — Blanchett from Australia and Hawkins from England — only insofar as it reflects the sad fact that here in America we now breed our starlets to be hot young things. We pluck them fresh, serve them raw, chew them up, then spit them out. If they happen to also be good actresses (Jennifer Lawrence) all the better. How refreshing to see Ms. Hawkins with her big teeth and her long legs — could an American actress so quirky have ever gotten in the door?
Most directors when they get to Woody Allen’s stage of their career are mostly played out. That’s probably because they begin to lean on what their audiences expect. Or they become like Frances Ford Coppola and spin off in many other experimental directions to the frustrations of their fans. But with Woody Allen, what we see on film, whether he will ever admit it in interviews or not (he won’t) is a man ruminating, meditating forever, on the human condition. If that is your ultimate aim as an artist you will never run out of things to say. Midnight in Paris was a revelation about nostalgia — how we spend too much time indulging in our imaginary past. Blue Jasmine is about self-delusion — and greed. In a way, it is an examination of Woody Allen’s own life – he wanted what he wanted when he wanted it without thinking of the consequences. But Jasmine suffers the consequences for her misdemeanors, and pays dearly for her crimes.