It’s a little glib to label the entire Woody Allen oeuvre “White People Problems,” but the man has often explored the neuroses of the reasonably well-to-do (and sometimes the very, very well-to-do). His films often feel cut off from the world as we know it; his characters exist in sealed-off realms that aren’t much affected by anything happening outside of them. Woody Allen’s New York is largely free of the grime and complexity you’ll actually find on the streets there (even if you’re very privileged). For Allen fans, his films are an escape; a chance to revel in a world that isn’t quite real enough for us to ever visit.
Except Blue Jasmine, his latest — which, for once, confronts the real world head on.
Yes, Blue Jasmine is the rare topical Woody Allen film. His films tend not to address what’s happening in the news — the movies he makes in the 21st century are essentially the same movies he made in the 70s, if not quite as vital and fresh as they once were — but Blue Jasmine is a post-Recession movie through-and-through. After romps through London and Rome and Paris and Barcelona over the last few years, he’s returned to the U.S. — New York City (in flashback) and San Francisco (in present) — to tell the story of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a former socialite whose husband’s Madoffian ways left her penniless and in the humiliating position of having to crash with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
We see plenty of flashbacks to Jasmine’s ritzy, breezy life with Hal (Alec Baldwin) — a smooth operator who is (obviously, to everyone but Jasmine) cheating on her. Then again, he’s cheating on everyone. Though Woody Allen pokes fun at the wealthy often, he doesn’t so frequently completely skewer them — but there aren’t many redeeming qualities to the preening, pompous Park Avenue types on display in Blue Jasmine. Jasmine herself is a cold fish, both before her personal tragedy and after, though in different ways. And perhaps it’s because we meet her on her way down that we have a little sympathy for her, even if she rarely acts unselfishly. She’s a bitch, but she can’t help herself. And maybe so many of us have fallen on hard economic times that we can relate, even if her bubbleheaded existence in the flashback sequences makes it clear that she’s much more part of the problem than the solution.
Or perhaps we can credit Cate Blanchett, who plays privileged women with just the right amount of vulnerability. Her performance is the anchor of Blue Jasmine, which sounds like it could be just another Woody Allen film about a fish out of water but is something else entirely. It’s darker than that, because the consequences of Jasmine’s fall from grace cut deeper than we’re used to seeing from Woody Allen. Jasmine is one-part chatty, neurotic Allen heroine, one part… well, let’s not spoil it.
Blanchett has more to work with here than many of Allen’s past leading ladies, talented as they all are, and gets more of an opportunity to carve out the sort of performance that gets one nominated for an Oscar (depending on how stiff the competition is, of course). Woody’s women tend to shine most in the Best Supporting Actress category, but here he’s given an actress a meaty enough lead role to contend for the big prize. Blue Jasmine is all about Jasmine, who is not at all a proxy for Woody (as many of his leads are). She voices her disdain for the lower-class without much of a filter, though she’s not exactly mean-spirited. We learn little about her past other than that she was adopted, but we can easily fill in the gaps — “Jeanette” changed her name to Jasmine, and traded a Jeanette’s life for a Jasmine’s life. When life forces her to go back to her roots, she looks within and learns that Jeanette doesn’t live here anymore.
Blue Jasmine has money on its mind and isn’t afraid to show it, with the opulence of Jasmine’s New York life clashing with the blue collar ways of Jasmine’s sister and her various paramours (played by Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., and Andrew Dice Clay — this cast’s weakest link). Is this heavy-handed? Sort of. We’ve seen all kinds of class differences at the movies, especially lately; the uber-rich have been demonized so many times, their extravagances ridiculed endlessly. Jasmine isn’t a groundbreaking character, though Allen pushes her further than you think he will when she first shows up on screen. What happens when you become so consumed by your consumerism that there’s nothing left once it’s taken away? There’s a moment when Blue Jasmine threatens to become another pull-yourself-up tale of a dumped woman’s difficult but earned reinvention, and another when it threatens to become another surface-level Woody Allen romcom, sweeping realism under the rug for the sake of a happy ending. Blue Jasmine ultimately goes elsewhere, with a finale that’s truly unsettling. It’s his darkest film since Match Point, and not coincidentally, also his best since.
And now for a qualification. Woody Allen films are easy to overpraise, which is how the whimsical Midnight In Paris got so much Oscar love. The man makes movies with sharp and observant dialogue that are about people, starring many of the best actors working today. They’re CGI-free and absent so many tropes that are otherwise inescapable at the multiplex. Blue Jasmine doesn’t exactly transcend what we’ve come to expect from him — camerawork that’s sufficient but not particularly inspired, some rather broad caricatures, a bit of obviousness with his message. But by now, you either love him or you don’t. Most of us are happily riding the bandwagon, because we simply don’t get enough movies like his — movies that are mostly just about people talking.
The slightest of Allen’s films still tend to be worth watching, and here — though he’s not saying much about the current state of the economy that isn’t being said elsewhere — he’s delving a little deeper. Given his penchant for tales of wealthy New Yorkers, you might almost view Blue Jasmine as… not exactly an apology, but a self-aware way of saying, “Yes, I hear you” to those who think he’s a Jasmine, a boy who made good and has long since lost touch with his roots. It’s a Woody Allen film for the 99%.