what i watched last week
jeff pike, the death of rock 'n' roll

by request: blue jasmine (woody allen, 2013)

This was requested by my sister, as part of an occasional thing we do where she and her husband, and my wife and I, go to a movie and then enjoy dinner together. We take turns choosing the movie, and we’re not exactly rushing through things … this was only the fifth time in about a year. Sue’s first pick last year was Moonrise Kingdom, and this time around, she gave us a choice of Blue Jasmine or Jobs.

My favorite Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall, came out in 1977, so I’m not exactly locked in to later-period Woody. In fact, the only other 21st-century Woody Allen movie I’d seen was Vicky Christina Barcelona. Some of my comments about that movie resonate with my thoughts on Blue Jasmine:

I'm not convinced Woody Allen actually knows much about Spain, or Cataluña, or Barcelona. Neither am I convinced he knows much about youngish American tourists in Spain, or about Spaniards. … It goes by pleasantly enough ... by no means is it a disaster ... but it's ultimately forgettable. Penelope Cruz gets an Oscar nomination, and she is wonderful, but even here, I'd credit the actor more than the director. She's the best thing about the movie.

Substitute San Francisco for Barcelona, working-class America for youngish American tourists, and Cate Blanchett for Penelope Cruz, and you’d have a fair picture of how I saw Blue Jasmine. It felt better as I left the theater than it does now that I am writing about it. Blanchett is the reason to see the movie. But Allen is as clueless about certain aspects of American life that are outside his own world as your average 77-year-old man. It feels real that Blanchett’s rich woman who loses her money wouldn’t know the first thing about computers. What doesn’t feel real is that everyone else seems to lack the basic knowledge of contemporary life. She takes a computer class so she can learn how to go online, as if cell phones didn’t exist and she hadn’t ever used the Internet. Meanwhile, the working-class characters are stereotypical (and, in the case of Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale, nothing like a real San Franciscan from the working class). The acting is fine … Clay and Cannavale may play stereotypes, but they do what they can with the roles. And Blanchett is so good, you’re glad to be watching her. I liked it more than I liked Vicky Christina Barcelona.

Meanwhile, there’s the whole Streetcar Named Desire undercurrent. In the review quoted above, I noted, “He once made a movie, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, that was an approximation of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night ... it wasn't half as good as its inspiration, but at least you got the feeling Allen loved Bergman.” Here, you get the feeling Allen loves Streetcar. But Blue Jasmine doesn’t come close to its inspiration.

Still, the connection is fruitful. For Blue Jasmine, Allen has doled out various parts of Stanley Kowalski to several working-class men. The actors are good, but the impact of Stanley is diluted. Blue Jasmine is like a version of A Streetcar Named Desire where Blanche is the sole focus of the play, and Stanley is a secondary character. That’s one reason the movie doesn’t measure up to Streetcar, but it allows Blanchett full room to shine. (In the 1950s film of Streetcar, Vivien Leigh’s brilliant performance as Blanche is ultimately overwhelmed by Brando/Stanley. That doesn’t happen to Blanchett’s Jasmine.)

Woody Allen’s career has come to resemble an aging rock star’s. Every time Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones come out with an album, people talk about how it’s “their best since Blood on the Tracks/Some Girls”. Most of the time, we come to our senses. Woody Allen movies are often treated as “his best since Crimes and Misdemeanors”, but eventually, we come to our senses. Blue Jasmine is a perfectly good movie, but it’s no Blood on the Tracks. It’s no Annie Hall. 7/10.

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