I’m a Woody Allen optimist. Like Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan or Darren Aronofsky, I eagerly await the next Woody Allen picture and even if it’s not all that great or memorable (which has been the case with most of his work of late) I still eagerly await the next film hoping that it will be better. Now, yes I think at this point in his life and career the 77-year-old director probably won’t have another truly great film like “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and Her Sisters” or “Manhattan” but that doesn’t mean he’s now incapable of making a near great film or at least a good one.
Since 1982 Allen has been writing and directing a film a year, which is a good thing and a bit of a bad thing. It’s good because it shows how much he loves making movies. He doesn’t make them because they’re going to earn large amounts at the box office, he does it for himself. It’s a bad thing because such a short time frame doesn’t give Allen a lot of time to work on his scripts and as a result most of them end up being thin and forgettable. But that doesn’t faze Allen; unlike a lot of great directors he doesn’t feel the need to top himself with every movie. He’ll come up with an idea and go with it and if the movie doesn’t make much of a splash it’s OK, he’ll try again next time. And for every one or two forgettable movies he makes there’s usually one that’s worth talking about.
After two forgettable romps, in 2009 (“Whatever Works”) and 2010 (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”), Allen achieved massive success (both critically and box office) with “Midnight In Paris,” a delightful little movie that was part fantasy, part romance and more importantly his love letter to Paris. Then in 2012 he made “To Rome With Love” and we were back to paper thin, forgettable Woody. But now, with his latest “Blue Jasmine” Allen is back to form and while it isn’t entirely successful it comes awfully close.
First and foremost it should be said that “Blue Jasmine” is a serious movie. So for those of you who just loved the pleasant and funny “Midnight in Paris,” be warned that this new movie is nothing like it. It’s character driven for sure, but more importantly it’s mostly a tragedy. It’s about a woman’s gradual decline into mental illness and delusion. It has perhaps one of the darkest, saddest endings I’ve ever seen in an Allen film.
At the same time however, that doesn’t mean the movie is completely humorless and cold. There is plenty of humor (through dialogue) but it comes as a result of the serious drama unfolding on screen and this makes the movie very watchable. Allen’s screenplay crackles with energy and hot emotions, his direction like always is minimal but effective, letting the actors and the emotions speak for themselves in each scene.
“Blue Jasmine” is about Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a woman who--after enjoying a life of wealth and security while being married to a real-estate investor named Hal (Alec Baldwin)—suffers a midlife crisis. As it turns out Hal was into some shady dealings and through circumstances explored throughout the film Jasmine loses it all. She’s forced to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who works in a grocery store and lives in a cramped apartment with two kids in San Francisco. It’s a big adjustment for Jasmine and to say that she’s a mess is an understatement. At first she comes off neurotic, uptight, bitter and kind of a spoiled brat. When she isn’t outright mean to Ginger--telling her that she’ll never achieve anything better than what she has now and criticizing the working class stiffs she dates or has dated in the past --she’s putting on a false grateful act while further degrading Ginger under her breath. In other words she‘s not exactly likeable and you’re ready to detest her for the rest of the movie. But as the film goes on and you learn more about how her life of decadence came crumbing down (through flashbacks) you see that there is something mentally wrong with Jasmine. This crisis has knocked a screw loose in her head. She’s taking pills, has violent mood swings and there are a couple of instances where she’s seen talking to herself. This is where most of the humor comes from; she’s so pathetic at times that you can’t help but laugh.
So you begin to feel sorry for her. The reason why she’s so nasty to her sister is because she’s trying to find some way to cope with her crappy situation. She’s resentful that she has to go to her sister for help. And, despite all of her unpleasantness she does try to put her life back together. She gets a menial secretary job and takes a computer class so she can get an online degree in Interior Decorating. She meets another wealthy man named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) and the two sisters do share a few pleasant moments together. But at the same time it’s not like her condition just magically goes away--like it would in a more conventional Hollywood movie--and it gets progressively worse as the movie goes on.
It’s a fascinating character brought fully to life by Blanchett. Her performance is one of tremendous highs and tremendous lows (that’s a positive thing), one minute she’s petty and nasty, the next she’s a babbling mess, then she’s confident and ready to get back on her feet and then she’s back to being petty and nasty. It’s a performance that highlights Blanchett’s immense range and talent. She’s the main reason why the character works and why you remain so invested in the film. If there’s anything in “Blue Jasmine” that’s going to be talked about (especially as we get closer to awards season) it’s Blanchett’s performance.
Jasmine is the center of the picture and so everything else sort of revolves around her, which is fine, but it also doesn’t allow for additional characters to fully blossom, particularly Ginger. Amidst all the trouble involving Jasmine, Ginger is having her own troubles. The two sisters are adopted and we learn that Jasmine was favored over Ginger by their parents. Ginger’s never had a lot of luck with money and men and the one opportunity she had to do something more with her life financially she got screwed over by Hal and his shady dealings. At only 98 minutes and with Jasmine being the center focus there just isn’t enough time to really develop Ginger’s character and as a result the stuff she goes through --involving her current relationship with a loudmouth mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and her fling with another man played by Louis C.K—feels trivial in relation to Jasmine’s story.
I’m not sure general audiences will react as strongly to “Blue Jasmine” as they did to “Midnight in Paris.” The movie is not light comedy but instead drama with some humor thrown in. And the ending is not happy which I realize will turn a lot of people off. Furthermore, audiences may find Jasmine too deplorable to get behind and that’s perfectly fine. But it’s these aspects that give “Blue Jasmine” a strong sense of authenticity. There aren’t always happy endings in life, people aren’t always sweet and likable and furthermore people don’t always learn their lesson and change their life for the better. Sometimes—as in the case of Jasmine—they just get worse and worse. Allen’s unpredictability—going from such a light and fantastical film like “Midnight in Paris” to such a heavy and tragic film like this one—is the main reason why I still eagerly anticipate his next picture.