I always wondered why Woody Allen repeated himself so much in his films, until I heard a radio interview he gave with FRONT ROW arts review host and occasional novelist, Mark Lawson. ‘Once I finish a movie, I’m done with it. I never watch it again.’ This makes his forthcoming stage musical adaptation of his 1994 film, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, due to open on Broadway in the spring of 2014, something of a challenge. How can you adapt something if you don’t look at the original?
Worry not about that. Instead consider BLUE JASMINE, his 45th film as writer-director and first to feature Cate Blanchett. Blanchett tears up the screen in a way that she has not done since she portrayed Katherine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film, THE AVIATOR. Here, the only way Blanchett’s character, Jasmine knows she is alive is by muttering to herself. This is almost a self-portrait of Allen. The only way he knows he exists is by making movies to various-sized audiences, sometimes small, sometimes very small! Occasionally he makes a hit. ‘I don’t look at the grosses,’ he told Lawson. Really? Why then did he complain in the documentary WILD MAN BLUES that the same people who wanted a picture with him didn’t watch his films? The answer is, of course, that he too must know that some of them are unwatchable – THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION and HOLLYWOOD ENDING spring to mind.
I would credit Allen with a reasonable memory for interview answers, since they all sound pretty much the same. No question will make him crack a joke or say something out of turn about another director or movie star. From his collaborators, you hear the same thing. Allen gives very little direction to his actors, allowing them to get on with it. This seems logical to me; if very few people watch his movies, why should he watch the takes? It must seem like that to the actors. In his younger days, Allen complained that God was silent and apparently uninterested in the actions of men; he directs like that. ‘Unless they do something egregiously wrong, I don’t interfere.’ Then, of course, it’s a flood or plague of locusts. (All right, he sacks the actor, for example Michael Keaton in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, or re-shoots the film in its entirety, as he did with SEPTEMBER.)
BLUE JASMINE is the story of Jasmine, the down-at-heel widow of high-rolling fraudster, Hal (Alec Baldwin) who got found out. Her flaw is that she does not think things through. She lives in the moment, sometimes recalling them to no one in particular, as on a plane in the opening scene. Yet she always wants to connect with her former life, rather than fly to San Francisco first class to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and two nephews in her tiny apartment. I say sister, but both women are adopted. Jasmine, born Jeanette, has the ‘classier’ genes. I don’t know anybody who says ‘classier’ nowadays, but then Allen hasn’t exactly evolved his dialogue style from the 1960s. It’s difficult imagine him overhearing conversations and then learning speech rhythms as other writers do, since he is too famous to eavesdrop incognito. Plus the old-fashioned fisherman’s hat that he walks around in is rammed over his ears; it must make it difficult to hear. You can always spot Woody Allen during one of his city walkabouts - he’s the one carrying the carp.
Ginger complains that Jasmine had better opportunities. Except when her former husband (Andrew Dice Clay) won the lottery, then Jasmine badgered Hal to make him even richer. This caused something of a rift between the pair.
I cannot be alone in spotting the big flaw in the film. Action is only taken against Hal after his business goes south, but Jasmine claims not to know anything, even though her sister and brother-in-law lose money. Sorry, don’t believe it. The chronology does not make sense. Allen does his best to hide this with a flashback structure that papers over the plot as you watch it. The film cuts between scenes in New York and San Francisco, in a way that is a first for an Allen film, with scenes from the past informing those in the present.
Jasmine gets a job working as a dentist’s receptionist in a plot development oblivious to logic. Why couldn’t the dentist, Dr Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) hire someone registered as unemployed? The answer, it seems, is that he has wandering hands. Wouldn’t someone have taken legal action against him? Not apparently in a Woody Allen movie. Then Jasmine goes to a party and meets a diplomat, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who apparently is in the wrong city, since the film isn’t set in Washington. She tells him that she’s an interior designer; she tried to learn it on-line and failed miserably. The way Allen characters talk about the internet is bizarre; it is like it is some remote ravenous beast. You’ll never hear about Facebook and Twitter in an Allen film, and as for Twerking – actually, even I don’t know what that is.
As I said, Jasmine lives in the moment. She does not think through the consequences of constructing a lie. Meanwhile, her aspiration for something greater rubs off on Ginger. She dumps her boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and goes after Al (Louis C.K.) a man who installs sound systems. Naturally, the perfect relationship – sex in small places – conceals something obvious. Both Ginger and Jasmine are on a collision course with disaster.
In spite of all the dramaturgical flaws, BLUE JASMINE is gripping. Blanchett’s intense performance as Jasmine is compelling. She is a wounded animal who won’t settle for second best. Her DNA won’t allow it. She is nostalgic for her former life, where she refers to the song ‘Blue Moon’ rather than something from the 1980s as you might expect. She gives the film a present tense; it’s a Zelda Fitzgerald crack-up of a leading turn. Only one other actor I can think of has taken an Allen film and shaken it up as Blanchett does here, Sean Penn in SWEET AND LOWDOWN. I got the feeling that faced with such intensity, Allen was too afraid to fire the pair of them. After all, once he finishes the movie – and the publicity tour – he’s done with it.
Reviewed at Warner Brothers Preview Theatre, Theobalds Road, London, Friday 16 August 2013