Since the end of his 1977-1992 Golden Age of filmmaking, Woody Allen’s corpus has been filled with some excellent films (Sweet And Lowdown, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream) and bad films (Hollywood Ending, Anything Else) but no film in that run is as utterly schizophrenic as Blue Jasmine- his 2013 film which surprisingly won a Best Actress Academy award for its star, Cate Blanchett, as Jeanette ‘Jasmine’ French, for a role and performance that hardly seem to merit such praise. The film simply does not know whether or not it is, nor wants to be, a comedy nor drama. And this tension is not used in a profitable way, but a destructive one, as the opposing bits of the film seem to be just glazed over, not nurtured in an organic narrative.
The film opens with a broke Jasmine flying to San Francisco to live with her recently divorced sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and her two nephews. We know nothing of the women’s backgrounds, save that they were both adopted from different pairs of parents, have odd names, are down on their luck (in different ways and for different reasons), and that they both possess a masochistic streak. Jasmine came from Manhattan wealth, having married a financial scam artist, Hal French (Alec Baldwin), who was later busted, and committed suicide in jail, sending her stepson across the continent to flee the two of them, while Ginger and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), lost $200,000 of lottery winnings in one of Hal’s scams, which led to their divorce. Ginger is a working class girl, now working at a small grocery store, raising two fat sons who are smarmy stereotypes ripped from just about every piss poor American sitcom of the last 30 years. Her new beau, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), is a younger, sexier version of Augie, and Jasmine hates him for his utter lack of couth. But, like Augie, he seems a much more decent man than Hal.
Flashbacks to the time Ginger and Jasmine were married, and Ginger and Augie visited the Frenches in New York ensue, and we learn that, shockingly, working class people are clueless social maladepts and rich people are vain narcissistic misanthropes. Yes, Allen still has no clue about people below a certain income level who are not Jews and do not live before the Kennedy Administration. Both sisters then do their damnedest to screw up their lives. Ginger, out of nowhere, decides to cheat on lovesick Chili with a bald, fat electronics salesman (Louis C.K.), prompting emotional meltdowns and Chili resorting to violence (much to Jasmine’s satisfaction), whereas Jasmine shamefully ‘lowers’ herself to be a dental receptionist, only to inadvertently drive the libidinous dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) into a sexual fury where he molests her, prompting her to quit and go to a party thrown by a rich woman she meets at a computer class (where she bizarrely will learn to take online interior decorating courses rather than just take a class in the real world). It’s at this party that Ginger begins her affair with who, of course, we know HAS to be a married man, whereas Jasmine deceitfully seduces a horny and vapid diplomat wannabe politician and widower, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who, of course, instantly falls madly in love with her at first sight, and soon plans to marry her, even though she lies about her job, her husband, his death, and her stepson with no conscience.
This is all soon revealed in a painfully contrived scene where the duo are out to buy a diamond engagement ring and run into Augie, the film’s most fully developed and realistic character, in the film’s actual best performance. Augie briefly recounts what Hal did to him, and walks away, after being implored to ‘get over’ it, by stating there are some things you never get over. This leads to the new beau dumping Jasmine, who asks to be let out of the car on a roadway divider, and then wanders over to a guitar repair shop in Oakland, where her stepson, Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), is working (according to Augie). We then find out what any reasonably intelligent viewer would have known twenty minutes into the film- that it was the self-destructive Jasmine that turned in her husband to the FBI after finding out he had many affairs, hastening her own demise.
Rejected by two men, in two different ways, for two different reasons, Jasmine makes it back to Ginger’s, only to find out that she and Chili have gotten back together, and he’s moving in, as Jasmine is expecting to move out and go to Europe with he now ex-beau. She lies to the pair, pretends all is still well, and wanders the streets, talking to herself as we have seen the whole film, from the first shots on the airplane. Some critics have seen this as a good ending and a great performance that details some form of mental illness, and while the ending is a relief from all the clichés that abound in the film, it is not near enough to save this film. And Blanchett’s performance, while doing the best it can with the screenplay, can’t make Jasmine believable, as Allen is still lost in a pre-Sexual Revolution mindset of what mental illness is, and how to treat it. In fact, Jasmine even claims to have been given electroshock therapy (Edison’s Medicine) in the 21st Century without her own consent, and despite the fact it is not used for schizophrenics.
Aside from all that, the problems with this film are manifest, and one of the biggest is the aforementioned schizophrenic nature of it. We get comic scenes of the fat nephews, Augie, Chili, and his idiot pal, Eddy, played by Max Casella of Doogie Howser, M.D. fame, and, taken out of context, most of these are fairly funny and well wrought comic scenes. But they are jackhammered into the supposed drama of Jasmine’s and Ginger’s twin descents, unlike so many of Allen’s 1980s novels on films, as he termed them, wherein films like Hannah And Her Sisters or Crimes And Misdemeanors had comic scenes that wove effortlessly in, and nicely contrasted with, the dramatic scenes, and where the comic scenes formed whole narrative arcs that cohered and drew emotional responses. In this 98 minute film, the comic sketches are just blackout sketches, with no rhyme, and reasons that amount to Allen’s well known penchant for stealing ideas and tropes from his and others’ earlier, greater works and reworking them in lesser works as this. Crimes and Misdemeanors, in fact, spawned two excellent, but inferior works: the aforementioned Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream)
Not only is every character in this film a stereotype, but many are significantly lesser versions of earlier characters, with Jasmine a mélange of at least half a dozen neurotic women from his canon- including the great Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) from Another Woman; except, of course, that Jasmine French is no Marion Post, and, despite an Oscar, Cate Blanchett’s performance is not in a league with Rowlands’. But, the biggest steal comes from Interiors, the first Woody Allen drama from 1978, with Jasmine as a déclassé version of Eve (Geraldine Page)- replete with talking to herself, the schizoid mother who is an interior decorator who is also losing her mind, and whose philandering husband drives her to death, except that the earlier film is clearly in drama/tragedy mode. Then there is the previously mentioned revelation scene between Augie, Jasmine, and her beau, fails because it is done only as plot exposition and is a lesser version of a similar scene in Another Woman. Blue Jasmine is on the fence, however, and the press of the posts weigh on it, and the viewer, from behind. There are other steals, from Annie Hall to Play It Again, Sam (Allen’s last San Francisco based film four decades earlier- although he wrote but did not direct it), as well as, most obviously, from Hannah And Her Sisters, in regards to Jasmine’s relationship with Ginger. And the reason for this over-reliance on steals from past successes seems obvious: Allen simply no longer has a clue as to what people of the 21st century are like. He does not know nor understand what motivates people under fifty, much less blue collar folks- hence the unending stereotypes. And then there’s the problem of identification. Forget that neither Ginger nor Jasmine are likable characters; they’re not even relatable. And what man would really desire Blanchett’s Jasmine, as she is portrayed in this film? Yet, men can’t seem to get enough of her. Even the faithless and mousy Ginger- saddled with two annoying brats, seems to have no problem attracting men. Huh?
Hence, at film’s end, we are left with Jasmine likely ending up dead, homeless, or in a psych ward, while Ginger- who dumped Augie and cheated on Chili (in what real world would he want a loser like her back?), likely doomed to a working class hell that she will undoubtedly sabotage again.
As for the more technical aspects of the film, we see how far Allen has slipped from his Golden Age. The jazz used to score the film is overdone, bears no relation to the scenes, dramatically nor emotionally- and what Park Avenue socialite would listen to 60+ year old jazz, anyway? Yet, it’s just another element of the film that shows how out of touch Allen is with modern life and modern characters.
This Village Voice review, while overall missing why the film fails, does make this one good observation on Allen’s failings with modern life:
You can forgive Allen for thinking "computer school" is the best way to "get online." But Blue Jasmine is so relentlessly clueless about the ways real human beings live, and so eager to make the same points about human nature that Allen has made dozens of times before, that it seems like a movie beamed from another planet.
Yet, most of the other critics of this film, and Blanchett’s performance, seem to not understand what even makes a good, much less great, movie or acting performance. Critical cribbing runs rampant in the canon of reviews- from the silly and inapt comparisons to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Jasmine’s being held up as a 21st Century Blanche DuBois to claims that this film is a well written critique of class consciousness in America. It’s not. Stereotypes simply are functionally unable to provide such, and Blue Jasmine drowns in them, for absolutely no reason.
As an online reviewer bemoans:
Allen’s characterization of working-class people plays as mildly exploitative. Ginger’s first husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), is a Jersey Boy type, while Cannavale as her current boyfriend Chili is a more hyperbolic, stereotypical version of Augie. Slicked hair, tight t-shirts, artificially tanned skin and New Yawkuh accents for both of these characters reveal a lack of imagination on Allen’s part but also a strangely off-kilter sense of place. Both Augie and Chili are coded as East Coast -- uncultured meatheads played for laughs -- yet they’re Bay Area residents.
One could add in Eddy and Chili’s sports loving pals to the mix, too. What, did half of Williamsburg, Brooklyn transplant to Frisco? Get outta here!
Aside from such, the screenplay is utter Swiss cheese, qualitatively, as well as schizoid, for we get people meeting in the most contrived ways and places (the Augie-Blanche encounter, Hal kissing a lover in the middle of Manhattan as Ginger looks on, Jasmine meeting her beau on her first foray to a fancy party, etc.) and relationships that pop up with no real scenes of emotionally why, as in the earlier ‘80s films; and the cinematography, by Javier Aguirresarobe, is utterly pedestrian. Gone are the Golden Age visual wonders of Sven Nykvist and Gordon Willis, which added visual poesy to Allen’s far better written words. And, despite her Oscar, Blanchett has been better in other roles. Here, she merely wanders about, like the blond Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) from the great 1962 horror film, Carnival Of Souls, save that she mutters to herself. In fact, Blanchett’s two Oscars come from relatively meager roles, in comparison to better performances she’s given. The only real revelation of the film, acting-wise, comes from the performance of Andre Dice Clay, as Augie- a character with emotional depths that are hinted at, but wisely never fully shown, for Clay may have been found wanting in bringing it.
The DVD, from Sony Pictures, has these features: the film’s press conference, the red carpet notes, the film trailer, and previews of other films.
Overall, and despite its many flaws, Blue Jasmine has enough comic moments that are well crafted and acted to be enjoyable, but, overall, it’s a minor, and wildly overpraised mediocrity in Allen’s film canon. Where it could have been a well developed drama or a broad farce, it lacks the insight and gusto needed to hit either, and instead falls back on broad, overdrawn characters and clichés, refried banalities and scenes, and all of it is mashed together in such a disjunct and haphazard fashion that, while there have been ten or twelve worse films in Allen’s post-Golden Age run, Blue Jasmine is possibly the least Woody Allen like film of his career, and that’s just not something worth boasting of.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.