|Cate Blanchett is blue in Blue Jasmine.|
«««1/2 Blue Jasmine. Written and directed by Woody Allen. At area theaters.
Fun fact: the last year Woody Allen did not release a film was a generation and a half ago, in 1981. Predictable as Christmas, his movies always start the same—the black screen, the olde-timey jazz, the same typeface for the titles (“Windsor EF-Elongated”). For better or worse, Allen is nothing if not consistent.
A few times—mostly back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s—his formula was the signature of true classics (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, et al). More often that consistency has come across as lack of inspiration, as his string of latter-day disappointments shows (anybody remember Whatever Works? To Rome With Love? Scoop? Anything Else? Melina and Melinda? Or the truly execrable Small Time Crooks?) As soon as this critic has been ready to finally, utterly, completely give up on Woody Allen, he suddenly delivers a flash of the old magic again (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris). Following him is like being in a marriage than has gone stale, in hope of catching some inkling of the person you once fell in love with.
That person is back again with Allen’s charming, perceptive Blue Jasmine. It might also be called his “San Francisco movie”, for like in Barcelona and Paris, Allen seems to have drawn inspiration from getting away from his beloved Manhattan. Not that this film shows any particular affinity for the Bay Area itself. Aside from using it as a pretty backdrop, Allen is more interested in California’s mythic significance, as a place where easterners go to reinvent themselves. Or at least to try.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a Manhattan socialite whose world imploded after her banker husband (Alec Baldwin) was unmasked as a white-collar criminal. Used to dinners at Le Cirque and yachting off Saint-Tropez, she is now a pauper, forced to move in with her sweet , not-rich, adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine’s life is a wreck, but she still has an odor of success about her that many find irresistible. Awkwardly, though she has no money, she can’t stop behaving rich, treating Ginger with the same borderline contempt she did when times were good. Nor is she shy about communicating her disapproval of Ginger’s working-class boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale).
It would be easy to hate Blanchett’s character for her pretensions and her meddling. Indeed, that seemed to be upshot when Diablo (Juno) Cody sketched a broadly similar character in Young Adult (2011). But Allen has something grander and more romantic in mind for Jasmine—something of the sympathy we reserve for great, self-immolating 19th century heroines like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. We love her as we pity her, and we pity her as we scorn her foolishness.
Allen finds an able collaborator in Blanchett. Sometimes regal, sometimes pathetic, always magnetic, she delivers the kind of portrait that would be career-making if Blanchett’s career were not already made, over and over again. Her performance is doubly unique here because, unlike many other actors directed by Allen, she refuses to come off as an imitation of Woody himself. She’s neurotic, to be sure, but not with all the nebbishy hand-wringing. To paraphrase Tolstoy, while a certain sameness to all well-adjusted people, the unhappy ones are all miserable in their own ways.
A firm believer that character is destiny, Allen shows a certain skepticism of changing ourselves merely by changing coasts. Jasmine, after all, is a careerist who happens never to have worked a real job. Focused only on the next gainful phase of her life, she never seems to consider typical Left Coast avocations like yoga or Buddhism or para-sailing. One of the pitfalls of change is changing into something even more like yourself.
Maybe that’s why Allen will go on making his one film a year, with the same credits and the same old timey jazz, regardless of whether his critics yawn or cheer. At least this time, they’re applauding.© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro