Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Too-Blue Jasmine

This review was written for the Jewish Week but, for reasons unknown to me, has never appeared. I am sufficiently concerned to be on the record on the film to come out of hibernation to post it here. I hope that this means I'll be back in this space on a more regular basis this fall but I know better than to promise such a thing. In the meantime, my seemingly unending battle with Woody Allen's film-making career continues:

Every filmmaker has his or her comfort zone, a subject or genre or setting that is easy and comfortable to work in. And like the proverbial clown who longs to play Hamlet, most filmmakers yearn to do something different and, well, uncomfortable. Sometimes the results can be stunning, sometimes not. (Think of David Cronenberg’s most recent films, the brilliant “A Dangerous Method” and the tepid “Cosmpolis.”) Regardless of the end-product, it’s an admirable impulse for any artist to want to stretch.

Sometimes it can feel like a necessity. Woody Allen, to his credit, continues to turn out films every eight or ten months. But his last two offerings, “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome With Love” felt attenuated and decidedly minor. As the song says, a change would do him good.

“Blue Jasmine,” his latest film, probably wasn’t the right answer. It certainly takes him outside his comfort zone: although a bit of the film is set in New York it eschews the Upper West Side for Park Avenue, and more of the film takes place in San Francisco than here. The culture clash at the heart of “Blue Jasmine,” a collision between the ultra-rich and the white working class, certainly is outside his usual beat as well. Allen has essayed drama before, albeit with rather less success than he has enjoyed even with his darker comedies, but this is probably his first writer-director credit on a film that attempts the daring double-act of a complicated flashback structure and an unreliable narrator who is not played for laughs. Perhaps it’s all a bit too much of a stretch.

The film tells the story of once-wealthy Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), whose husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) turns out to have been another Bernie Madoff-type financial scoundrel. Among the people he fleeced were Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins in a replay of her performance in Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky” that is the best thing in the film) and husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Now stripped of nearly everything – husband, son, home, money, possessions – Jasmine (nee Jeannette) turns to Ginger for shelter. She immediately clashes with Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and her tenuous grip on reality loosens dangerously.

Allen has never been particularly adept at working outside his own class milieu. On those occasions when he has visited people farther down the economic ladder successfully it has either been in a period setting (“Purple Rose of Cairo”) or on the fringes of show business (“Broadway Danny Rose”). In either case he can imagine a studio-era version of the working class with little reference to reality. “Blue Jasmine” is filled with downscale types (Hawkins, Clay and Cannavale foremost) but they are never remotely believable and Allen seems without a clue how these people live.  We never know what ethnicity they are, except for a rather cheap joke at Augie’s expense when he extols the virtues of a friend’s singing, then reveals the would-be vocalist’s baroque Italian-American surname. It wouldn’t matter if there was some other kind of specificity to replace the missing ethnicity, but all we have our relatively faceless blanks, delivering rather flavorless dialogue. Having cast a Jew (Clay), an Italian-Cuban (Cannavale) and an Englishwoman* playing something generic, Allen leaves us to fill in those blanks ourselves. But if the working-class milieu is lacking in texture (even the usually reliable Santo Loquasto lets us down with production design that is fussy but unforthcoming), then the culture clash at the center of the film is meaningless.

Most of all, though, “Blue Jasmine” lacks a coherent point of view. It’s fine to focus on a central figure who is becoming an increasingly unreliable narrator, and to hold back a key piece of information that would undermine her in the eyes of the audience until her most vulnerable moment. But Allen never really establishes his own attitude towards Jasmine in either the writing or direction of the film, and the character really has no center; Blanchett works through each scene point-to-point, using her considerable technical skills to keep us watching as she ostensibly gets crazier and crazier, but at her center Jasmine is a series of contradictions. Allen drops a few clues – both she and Ginger were adopted, but by whom and to what end – but he fails to elaborate.

As a result, the center of “Blue Jasmine” is a void.

*My good friend Deborah Beshaw-Farrell suggests that I have misidentified Blanchett, who is Australian. I believe that I was actually referring to Hawkins here. However, it does bring to mind another problem with both Hawkins and, to a lesser extent, Blanchett, which is the infamous middle-of-the-Atlantic American accent that British actors seem to inevitably produce when cast as Yanks. 


Moving along to more appealing and useful topics, allow me to direct your attention to a valuable on-line research resource, the Media History Digital Library, which is located at Their focus is pretty much what the name suggests, providing a clearinghouse for media publications, including searchable collections from Variety, Photoplay, Motion Picture World and lesser-known trade mags like Business Screen. Highly recommended!



Finally, one of the most interesting films of the summer is Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer's approach to documentary is unconventional but surprisingly effective. I did an interview with him that I think you will find quite provocative. You can read it here 

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