July 25, 2013



BLUE JASMINE:  Worth A Ticket – Cate Blanchett Is Dazzling in Woody Allen’s Latest

Woody Allen has made so many movies at such regular intervals, and they’re so thematically linked, that it’s tempting to view his work as one gigantic serial, a by-now 60-hours-plus epic of disappointments in life and love, artistic fantasy, moral quandaries and existential dread, with each film viewed in the context of and by comparison to the others.  So one can enumerate the ways in which his new BLUE JASMINE fits into his various patterns.  Among other things, it concerns willed delusion, like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice; a disintegrating personality, as in Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry; and the stress of having an artistic temperament but not artistry, reminiscent of Interiors; while in style, it’s a conscious homage to an earlier great work of art, a strain that runs from Love and Death to Shadows and Fog to Allen’s various Bergman-esque and Fellini-esque films and beyond.

These parsings of the Allen canon have their fascination, but it’s more important to note that Blue Jasmine is his best film since 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and that in it, Cate Blanchett gives an overwhelming performance, in a league with the classic portrayals (usually by women) that dot his career.  There’s been a structural ease and assurance in Allen’s recent, lighter work, like Midnight in Paris but also his underrated You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome With Love, a almost blithe ability to balance stories between different timeframes, modes of reality, and tones, and here, dealing with more substantial material, that dexterity pays off with far more impact.

One aspect of Blue Jasmine that’s unusual in Allen’s work is that it takes off from a topical idea:  Jasmine (nee Jeanette), is clearly inspired by the story of Bernie Madoff, since her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is also a fabulously wealthy investor who turns out to be a vast swindler jailed for his crimes.  When we meet Jasmine, all of this has already occurred (although the story moves backward as well as forward, and we learn more about her life with Hal as the movie goes on), and, ruined by the scandal and the government’s confiscation of all her assets, she’s been forced to leave her luxurious life in New York and move in with her lower-class adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in a small San Francisco apartment.  And here is the other clear influence on the story:  Blanche DuBois and A Streetcar Named Desire.  Like Blanche, Jasmine takes refuge for the most part in a world of fantasy and delusion, unable to cope with the brutal realities of her actual life.  Even more than Blanche, though, Jasmine has herself been an awful sister.  When she was wealthy, she not only did nothing for Ginger, but recoiled from her as much as she possibly could, contemptuous (and perhaps, on some level, frightened) of Ginger’s taste in men and lack of class, and her one attempt to help her sister can, by the story’s end, be seen as something quite different.

Social class is something Woody Allen has rarely dealt with overtly over the years, although it’s certainly an undercurrent in Interiors and Small Time Crooks (in very different ways, obviously).  Watching Blue Jasmine, and knowing that Allen himself went from lower-middle-class Brooklyn to his own palatial Central Park West digs, that on the one hand he’s always showcased his own educated tastes in literature and high culture, but on the other he’s delighted in puncturing the pretensions of others (and that his producer Letty Aronson is his sister), it’s easy to see some element of psychodrama in the conflict painted here.  Something in Blue Jasmine cuts to the bone for him in a way he hasn’t ventured since Deconstructing Harry back in 1997.

But Blue Jasmine isn’t a screed.  There’s a fair amount of comedy overlaying the tragedy, as the genteel Jasmine has to coexist with Ginger’s brutish boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale, as Stanley Kowalski but without Stanley’s sexual violence) and his friends, and a job working for–horrors!–a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Allen has compassion for all his characters here, something that hasn’t always been true of his work, and that extends as well to the other very fallible men in Ginger’s life, her ex-husband Augie (a completely creditable Andrew Dice Clay) and new friend Al (Louis C.K.).

All of the cast is excellent, and notably well modulated.  It would have been easy and obvious for Baldwin to make Hal too clearly oily, and Ginger’s men to be nothing but obnoxious loudmouths, and for Ginger herself to be just a valiant loser, but all of them find a reality in their characters.  Blanchett, though, is a league beyond, simply extraordinary.  By turns obnoxious, desperate, heartbreaking, courageous, infuriating, funny and pathetic, her Jasmine is a great creation.  Blanchett herself played Blanche DuBois in a recent acclaimed production of Streetcar that originated in Australia and moved to New York, but she’s very aware of the difference between Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen, and while Blanche informs her Jasmine, it doesn’t define her.

It’s an old saw to say that Allen is too much addicted to his one-film-per-year assembly line, and that his scripts could use a little more time and one more rewrite before facing a camera, but in truth, the frequency of his work doesn’t seem to affect its quality–the same amount of time passed before he shot the awful Whatever Works as before Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine.  The last section of the Jasmine script, though, is more problematic than what led up to it.  While one climactic revelation makes perfect sense, a character introduced late in the game seemed so unconvincing that I was certain (wrongly) that some kind of reveal was going to provide an explanation of what was going on.  It’s what keeps the film from being one of Allen’s very best, keeping in mind that his very best are among the greatest films ever made.

Of course his craftsmanship is impeccable.  This is the first time Allen has shot a film in San Francisco (the movie of Play It Again, Sam was set there, but that was directed by Herbert Ross), and the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (who also shot Vicky Cristina) is radiant.  Working with his usual editor Alisa Lepselter and production designer Santo Loquasto (they’ve been with him, respectively, since 1999 and 1980), the images have a compelling flow and vitality, and Lepselter does an especially deft job here of intercutting flashback with present.  The score of jazz standards is far more effective than the Italian muzak that wallpapered To Rome With Love.

We’ve learned, over the years, that not every Woody Allen film is going to be great.  The 2014 Untitled Woody Allen Project is already before the cameras in the South of France (starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone), and perhaps this one will turn out to be a Scoop or a Hollywood Ending.  But at 77, Allen is still capable of films more polished, rigorous, moving and intelligent than just about anyone else around.  Blue Jasmine is one of the good ones.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."