“Winter is coming.” - Game of Thrones
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
There once was a time when Woody Allen had the ability, or at least the will, to accurately depict people who aren’t rich. When he emerged as a uniquely talented screenwriter and director in the 1970s, Allen’s films may have featured the stilted dialogue that became a sort of hallmark of his style, but at least his characters didn’t feel out of touch with some kind of reality. His latest, “Blue Jasmine,” feels disconnected from anything genuine in the worst way. Whether Allen no longer knows how real people live or just doesn’t care anymore, the film suffers from this remove.
Cate Blanchett stars (with more range and dedication than the film deserves) as Jasmine, the ex-wife and now widow of a Ponzi schemer played in flashbacks by Alec Baldwin. With no money, friends or skills to fall back on, Jasmine has no choice but to go to San Francisco to live with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). What follows is a decidedly loose story of Jasmine trying to get back on her feet.
In the early goings, “Blue Jasmine” feels like Woody Allen’s attempt to muster some rage over the horrible greed of people like Bernie Madoff or any number of other financial industry crooks of the Recession era. In plentiful scenes depicting Jasmine’s memories of a lost life of luxury, the fabulously wealthy East Coast set comes off as shamelessly over-privileged and rankly materialistic, but Allen can’t harness much more venom than casual contempt. He stops short of any true indictment of the underhanded means many of his characters use to fund their lavish lifestyles, ultimately choosing to avoid commentary altogether.
What’s more, the Wood Man seems far more comfortable in the gorgeously appointed mansions and South Hampton summer homes of the flashbacks than in the film’s many clumsy attempts to depict working class life. The director’s camera lingers over sumptuous set designs and picturesque scenery both on Park Avenue and in the nicer parts of San Francisco. His shots of the lived-in apartments and bland workplaces of the non-rich are indifferent at best, and watching Allen try to piece together the everyday lives of average people is just painful. Everyone in “Blue Jasmine” who isn’t rich is a boor, not to mention inexplicably New York-ish. Everyone middle class or lower, even Ginger, is a stereotypical Italian-American straight out of a stagey Hell’s Kitchen.
In a way, it’s good to see Woody Allen trying to tell stories about different sorts of people than usual. He doesn’t often stray below the higher tax brackets, but maybe that’s just because the world of the wealthy is a place he understands. He has always been good at depicting erudite people in feathered homes, which is perhaps why he, and by extension his characters, look at a large, perfectly nice apartment in San Francisco as a dump any single mother on a grocery store clerk’s salary could afford. Allen is on solid ground when sketching a romantic diplomat played by Peter Sarsgaard or filling in the margins at a flashback soiree, but he doesn’t know what to do with his “other half” cast playing blue collar shlubs.
That just leaves Cate Blanchett to fill in the one, truly thought-out character in the movie. Nothing much around Jasmine may work as a film, but her own rocky journey as a disgraced socialite has some meat on it. Blanchett gives one of the best performances of her life, showing Jasmine’s fragile psyche cracking a bit more with each indignity and conveying the poisonous mix of contempt and terror that colors her every interaction with the present. Watching the actress commit with such craft just makes the flimsy movie seem that much more ready to fold.
In going to a new locale, there’s always some hope that Woody Allen will find new inspiration. His recent excursions to Europe have had some fun results. He used England as a fitting platform to talk about the tension between passions and appearances in “Match Point,” dressed-down continental romanticism in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and connected with the history of culture in “Midnight in Paris.” So far, San Francisco hasn’t produced much of note in Allen’s writing. He could have used the West Coast setting to fuel a story of reinvention or to shed the neuroses so embodied by his predominantly East Coast tales. Instead, “Blue Jasmine” finds the prolific director at his most insular.
Blue Jasmine ends its run at the Harvard Exit this week.