Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine starts off as an emotionally detached examination of lives with conflict close to the surface, Mike Leigh style, before a quick glimpse of potential comedy is swept away to concentrate on the mental breakdown of the title character, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine.
Allen sets the mood instantly of an annoying, overbearing and self-obsessed woman who displays extravagant pretensions, yet is clearly struggling to stay in control of her life, claustrophobic and susceptible to panic attacks. Jasmine is on pills for her nerves, headaches and heartaches, while trying to adapt to a dramatic change in lifestyle and status that leaves her effectively standing alone with only the soundtrack she has adopted to her life, Blue Moon.
It seems a paradox that Allen, who has created many good roles for women since Annie Hall, has two central female characters who allow their lives to be shaped by men, with Jasmine intent on having a certain lifestyle where she is a dormant partner while Ginger, played by an excellent Sally Hawkins, is building a life around a man who rips a phone from the wall when he is angry, as Jasmine noted in one of her greater moments of clarity.
That man, Bobby Cannavale’s Chilli, brings the first warmth to film when he enters with Max Casella’s Eddie, in a scene that had the potential to have the most comedy in an ad-hoc date on the big screen since the visual comedy in the cinema scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. But Allen was clearly intent on exploring a serious subject matter in Blue Jasmine, and Casella effectively only has a cameo as panic, Martini and the oppressive personality of Jasmine take over the scene all too quickly, with the interaction of the two Boardwalk Empire actors curtailed.
The quality of great television, such as Boardwalk Empire, which has surpassed cinema as an art-form in the latter part of Allen’s career, means that some of the dialogue, normally natural for characters in his films, seems forced, as details are sometimes spoon-fed to the audience who even in a short film, have the intelligence to work out, for example, what may have happened the night before.
Some lists and critics have already acclaimed Blue Jasmine as one of Allen’s finest pieces of work and unlike most of his annual output this has even made the multiplexes in the UK; but it isn’t a masterpiece, although the story cleverly reveals a central character who while blinkered, clearly has intelligence, ambition and a resilience that has contributed to the position she finds herself in.
There are nice touches, such as the empathetic grocery store manager in another scene in which Chilli emerges with credit. There are also other observations Allen has noted about the super rich before, most notably in Match Point, with shady transactions carried out by men in casual wear while they sit with family and friends outdoors on a weekend retreat; Alec Baldwin’s callous, duplicitous and tax-avoiding Hal is not given any redeeming features and Allen is suddenly an unlikely champion for the honest blue-collar worker who unwittingly becomes collateral damage in what Bruce Springsteen may have termed the Wrecking Ball of capitalism that shatters homes, hopes and dreams.
The pace is different from much of Allen’s recent material, such as Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Blue Jasmine is not a comfortable watch, deliberately transmitting the claustrophobia of the lead to the audience, with a mix of camera work that was seen in Husbands and Wives and close-ups of Blanchett dominating the screen as well as the picturesque exteriors Allen makes sure he is shooting on, here on the bay and within the streets of San Francisco, with flashbacks to New York and Los Angeles as Jasmine’s back-story unravels with her life.
As this website said in the Profile of Woody Allen the filmmaker last year, even his non-greats are worth watching. And as both that profile and Bob Weide’s documentary also states, he remains a great independent filmmaker.
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