A Streetcar Named Woody
It has become a bit of an annual ritual of late: every year Woody Allen releases a new film, as he has for about four decades now, and every year the critics declare that this one shows the great man is back on form (well, they didn't say that about To Rome With Love, admittedly, possibly because it was just a little bit too broad a comedy). Implicit in this is an acknowledgement that for quite a long time Allen went off the boil as a film-maker, and to be perfectly honest I've found his last few films as variable as much of the rest of his later work.
But anyway: his new movie is Blue Jasmine, which has been hailed as 'a work of brilliance' and 'better than anything you might imagine' by grown-up professional film critics. Crikey. It has also been hailed as a bit of a stealth adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, but as the sum total of my experience of 20th century American theatre consists of working as a stagehand on a production of The Glass Menagerie, I don't really feel competent to comment. Those who like Blue Jasmine have claimed this is Allen's first openly political film, but once again I would say people are perhaps getting a bit carried away with their own enthusiasm.
See what you think. This is much less of an ensemble piece than most recent Allen movies, with the lead role going to Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine, the title character, and the film is something of a riches-to-rags tale. The narrative structure is complex, but the film opens with her arriving in San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is used to an extremely affluent lifestyle amongst the smart set of New York City's Park Avenue, but the exposure of her husband as a financial fraudster on a colossal scale has left her with virtually nothing, and reliant on the goodwill of her sister.
Ginger, on the other hand, operates on a much lower social strata – rather than big moneymen, her boyfriends tend to be mechanics and builders. (It is a bit of a stretch to believe that two such totally different characters are really sisters, but Allen has a valiant stab at selling this idea to the audience.) So the scene is set for some comedy of embarrassment as Jasmine has to come to terms with working as a dental receptionist and being hit on by blue-collar joes.
Throughout this the film frequently flashes back to Jasmine's privileged life with her former husband (Alec Baldwin), filling in some of the history of the various characters and their relationships. This could be a slightly hokey device but Allen handles it quite deftly, using it to deliver a final plot revelation in a rather satisfying manner.
Blue Jasmine sits very comfortably within the Allen canon – it has the same tone and style, the same sort of soundtrack, even the same graphic design, as the vast majority of his work. There's an ensemble cast and a number of parallel plot threads, mostly concerned with the interpersonal relationships of the characters. What makes it distinctive is its focus on one particular character over all the others, and it's central to the success of the film that Cate Blanchett is in the title role. Blanchett gives the kind of performance that people love to throw awards at; I'll be very surprised if she doesn't get an Oscar nomination. I'm not going to bother about mentioning Blanchett's lack of vanity (there's always a sort of implied sexism there I'm never comfortable with), she's just simply very good in a role which had the potential to be an overblown grotesque.
Jasmine is, in addition to being a monstrous snob, a borderline alcoholic, an incessant fantasist, and psychologically extremely fragile, and yet Blanchett manages to keep her not only credible as a human being but actually sympathetic throughout – or at least not totally unsympathetic. Given that Woody Allen often seems to regard his own characters as specimens under a microscope one wonders if this was his actual intention, but it serves to make the film much more rounded and interesting than might otherwise have been the case.
This sort of ties in to the issue of Blue Jasmine as a political film – it's been suggested that Jasmine's tribulations, and her generally corrosive impact on the lives of her less-affluent family and acquaintances, constitute Allen's comment on the financial crisis which continues to shape the modern world. One of the central questions of the film is whether Jasmine was just plain ignorant of her husband's various misdeeds, or simply chose to look the other way (and this question is answered, not that Allen makes a big thing out of it as such). Allen doesn't seem especially interested in issues of personal culpability, though, and the film operates in more general terms.
Chief amongst these is the way that Jasmine is, quite simply, bad news for those around her, especially her good-natured sister: in the course of the film she causes her sister to lose a small fortune of her own (leading, it's implied, to her divorce), and then the near-collapse of a second relationship. The implication may be that Jasmine's fortune has made her careless when it comes to other people – or possibly it's that wealth is a shield against many of the vicissitudes of life. It's not just an issue of money, though – the film is about the various characters trying to move on from the downfall of Jasmine's husband and the fallout from this, and it's notable that Jasmine seems to find this easier, in many ways, than some of the others. It's implied that this is because she maintains a fraudulent air of refinement and sophistication even when she's practically broke, while her sister, who is honest about her lack of taste and breeding, is held back as a result.
It may be that Allen is trying to make a point about the superficiality of the world and the resulting unfairness: phonies finish first. The ending of the film doesn't quite support this interpretation, though, but it's unclear whether this is Allen simply being ambiguous on purpose in an attempt to avoid too clean-cut a conclusion, or the director fumbling the ball again and inadvertently muddying the waters.
If you consider Blue Jasmine as a piece of socio-political commentary, then it's a complex film and possibly not an entirely consistent one. I'm not saying there isn't a political element to it, but I think it emerges en passant from the story of the central character. I would say this was a film about characters rather than ideas, and as such it is lifted considerably by the talents of the performers involved, primarily Cate Blanchett. The premise is engaging and the story involving, but it's the performances that bring the film to life. This is certainly one of Woody Allen's better recent movies, but a lot of the credit must go to his leading lady.