Blue Jasmine movie review: Woody Allen is pissed
Years ago, the venerable and prolific writer-director and comedian Woody Allen was quick to remind people that he was not one of the Upper East Side elite he had often mocked in his stand-up work and light comedic novels. Eventually, these characters also came to populate his movies following his slapstick-and-shtick period (What’s Up Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run, Bananas).
Even as Allen played one of these “types,” as in Annie Hall, he made sure to note that his surrogate, Alvy, was not really one of them either, but instead rose from his apocryphal tenement beneath the Coney Island boardwalk and past their condo boards, on the strength of his wit and moxie – not an imaginary birth right or slick manipulation of derivatives. In Blue Jasmine, with the help of several perfectly pitched performances, Woody Allen once again reminds us that if there is an Us and a Them, he’s one of Us.
Blue Jasmine is constructed of Allen’s standard vignettes and flashbacks. He even manages a voice-over opening by having Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) ramble effusively to a stranger for the first several minutes of the movie. It’s an old bit that even he has used before, but it’s funny and gets us up to speed on who Jasmine is and why she’s landing broke and medicated on her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) San Francisco stoop.
Blue Jasmine is also social satire and dense, biting social commentary. And it bites hard. Allen frames the film in the context of Jasmine’s life and her undoing: Jasmine had a billionaire husband, Hal (To Rome with Love‘s Alec Baldwin); but now Hal is gone and so is the money. With candid conversations between an eclectic palette of characters, and with relatively few interstitial scenes, Allen lays out the unraveling of Jasmine in his familiar way – and while it’s always funny, make no mistake, Woody Allen is pissed.
‘Blue Jasmine’ & ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
Structurally, Allen is biting Tennessee Williams: Jasmine is Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire (Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie adaptation), Sally is Stella (Kim Hunter), Bobby Cannavale is Stanley (Marlon Brando), Andrew Dice Clay is Mitch (Karl Malden) – or maybe Peter Sarsgaard is playing Mitch. No matter, they’re all here, give or take. And they’re all great, though I felt most empathetic towards Dice Clay’s Augie, and so does Allen. Augie loses all his money – and his only shot at security – to a scheme that is at least tangentially related to his sister-in-law Jasmine. Allen, who about a decade ago sued longtime friends whom he accused of having cheated him out of millions in profits from his films, identifies with Augie.
In a conversation with Dick Cavett on his 1970s talk show (and other places), Woody Allen often implied – if not said outright – “I’m nothing like the characters I write and play; I’m a tough kid from the Bronx.” Those characters, nebbish intellectuals and their like, were fodder for material; over the years, however, this became less true as Allen became one of Them – the elite’s concerns became his concerns and it showed in his films. Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda, Scoop, even the wonderful Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and what might be called his late masterpieces, Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, are concerned, however thoughtfully, with the foibles and philosophical considerations of the well-to-do. Allen isn’t only making fun of them, he’s also commiserating with them.
Don’t mess with Woody Allen
However similar it may look, Blue Jasmine is a stark departure from those themes. The film marks a return to a Woody Allen standing apart from the elite, as the characters in his mid-career films always did. Although he doesn’t act in Blue Jasmine, Allen’s latest film reflects the notions of Alvy and Isaac (Manhattan) and Mickey (Hannah and Her Sisters) and Gabe (Husbands and Wives), guys from the Bronx who were as smart as his upper-East Side contemporaries, but not one of them. Like Allen himself, those characters mostly observed and bemoaned the foibles of the privileged classes even as they participated in their lifestyles and earned a living off their interest in themselves.
Blue Jasmine also offers a few not-so-subtle notions about the middle-class. Critiques of their shallow concerns play out in clever storylines involving actor-comedian Louis C.K. and the great Peter Sarsgaard. Allen does not let those characters off the hook. They are manipulative and conniving; they hold themselves harmless when in fact they’re taking advantage of both the rich and the poor – or are just plain insecure, protecting what they’ve acquired while not giving a damn about real passion or true love, especially if it messes with their five-year plan.
In Manhattan (1979), while at a posh party where everyone is beautiful and erudite, the conversation turns to an upcoming march by Nazis. One man chimes in about a biting article in the Times regarding the event. It’s Allen’s Isaac, the kid from the Bronx, who suggests a more direct course of action involving baseball bats. That’s the Woody Allen – the Allan Stewart Konigsberg – who wrote Blue Jasmine. And if I were you, I wouldn’t mess with him.
Blue Jasmine (2013). Dir. & Scr.: Woody Allen. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stuhlbarg, Max Casella, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Alec Baldwin, Alden Ehrenreich, Charlie Tahan, Tammy Blanchard.
Cate Blanchett Blue Jasmine photo: Sony Pictures Classics.