The opening shot of this week’s film reinforced for me what a journey Woody Allen’s career has been. The second film credited to him as a writer is What’s Up Tiger Lily?, and the second-last to be reviewed this year is Blue Jasmine. One is a crude overdubbing of a b-grade film, and the other begins with an impressive CGI shot of a plane cruising through the clouds.
While I would never suggest Woody was seeking, or achieving, the kind of technical nous of a contemporary like Spielberg, it is interesting to reflect upon how much has changed for the director with this graceful establishing shot. It is true that much of his films remain the same (for better or worse), but there is change. Even the act of watching Blue Jasmine on Blu-Ray with 5.1 audio feels like an anomaly.
And yet here we are, with much more than a technically proficient opening shot, but a film which garnered critical acclaim and caught the box office zeitgeist with its tale of the fall from grace of a rich man’s wife. Cate Blanchett is Jasmine, whose story is told after the fall in San Francisco as she tries to rebuild her life by moving in with her sister, seen against flashbacks to her high society life with her white collar criminal husband in New York. Alec Baldwin plays the non-comedy version of his 30 Rock character as Jasmine’s philandering spouse, while Sally Hawkins plays Ginger, struggling to make ends meet while also defending her life and choices of men to her imperious sister.
Woody has a history of not only creating memorable female characters, but also putting them centre stage, and not always in a flattering light. For me where Jasmine works over Annie, Hannah and Alice is that she feels more a part of the real world. “She couldn’t stop babbling about her life,” comments a hapless airline passenger after spending a coast-to-coast flight with the over-sharer. We have all met a random stranger like that, just as we have all encountered the homeless person talking to themselves on a park bench that Jasmine becomes at the end. But have we ever stopped to think about the story behind those people?
Granted they may not have had the neat dramatic arc of Jasmine. But that was my takeaway from the film the first time I saw it. Watching it again this week I was more taken with the performances. Blanchett won an Oscar for the title role, while Hawkins was nominated for in the Best Supporting category. They’re both great, but it’s the deep bench of supporting players I really enjoy in this film. I think Michael Stuhlbarg is superb in everything, and he nails the petulant dentist here. The same goes for Louis CK as the slimy sound expert wooing Ginger but not giving her the full picture. Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay (!) are also excellent as Ginger’s heart-of-gold working class partners.
Speaking of class and drama and a socialite who has fallen from grace and lost the plot, on its release every critic and high school graduate was falling over themselves to mention A Streetcar Named Desire as an obvious reference point (they probably also have fascinating insights on The Lion King v. Hamlet). I see the parallel, but as part of the Woody canon, I also see Blue Jasmine as something else. To me this shows the same cool, even cruel approach to his characters that he showed in Crimes and Misdemeanours, but with more of a sure dramatic hand at work. The flashbacks are seamless, with each one filling in more and more of the backstory until the final twist.
Also upon its release, critics praised this film as Woody’s first real contemporary story, assuming that the character of Jasmine was based on Bernie Madoff’s wife. Even if that were true, to me the motives of Alec Baldwin’s character are timeless and universal, as is the inevitable emotional unravelling of his wife. With Blue Jasmine, we may be getting a searing commentary on the GFC, but that’s a bonus to the real success of the film, which is once again Woody Allen’s sure hand as a dramatist.
Which begs the question after the long string of European films before this mostly San Francisco set entry: are we finally ready to accept Woody Allen for much more than a New York filmmaker? And, to burst a few more stereotypes, a filmmaker who only makes films about a certain type of character within a certain moral framework? I’d say yes. But then there are still King Oliver and Louis Armstrong providing some classic blues on the soundtrack, reminding us at least on some level of the familiar writer-director at work.
By the way, Merry Christmas! It’s hard to believe there is only one more film to go.
Next week: Magic in the Moonlight