The best Woody Allen films of the past decade have invariably been minor frivolities. As wonderful as his 2011 effort Midnight in Paris was, it is undeniably frothy and lightweight when held up against some of his masterpieces. His new endeavour, Blue Jasmine (2013), sees Allen channelling Tennessee Williams to bring real intellectual and creative heft back to his work. Recalling the pessimism of Deconstructing Harry (1997) and the tragic fatality of Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989), Allen’s latest has an urgency and vitality that many Woody detractors thought had been lost somewhere in the hinterland of the early nineties.
Blue Jasmine is uncompromisingly raw, using Cate Blanchett’s titular heroine as an angry, unstable personification of the post-recession blues of the fallen rich. The film sees bitter socialite Jasmine moving in with her poorer sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco after her financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is jailed for fraud. Desperate but in denial, she resents her new circumstances including Ginger’s fiancée Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) who lost his life savings investing in one of Hal’s phony projects. Allen cuts between Jasmine’s new life in San Francisco and her old life in New York, finding vast comic and dramatic riches in the contrast.
In the lead role, Blanchett is a true force of nature; sozzled, depressed and on the verge of madness, it’s the best work of her career. The complexity and nuance of the performance derives from the way Blanchett pitches Jasmine somewhere in the precarious middle ground between self-destruction and self-preservation. Post-fall Jasmine is the picture in Dorian Gray’s attic; an ugly decomposition of her former self. Status gives Jasmine her façade – her moral alibi – but once it’s crumbled, the jitters and uncertainties behind it come to the fore in a furious, inebriated mess. Blue Jasmine is the first time since Crimes & Misdemeanors that Allen has successfully managed to bridge the great economic divide.
Thankfully, there’s no insincere class tourism here; blue-collar aspirations are sensitively appropriated as the honest counterpoint to unbridled East coast excess. When the walls cave in on the ceremony and circumstance of wealth, we are left with something very human. In Blue Jasmine, the hopelessness of life is indiscriminate; rich and poor are all ultimately in pursuit of the same happiness. It’s a philosophy that underpins the best of the Allen’s dramatic work. Meanwhile, the broader political concerns may only shade the narrative, but they reveal Woody to be a masterful literary chronicler in the classic New York tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James.
With her high-class affectations and dubious mental stability, Blanchett’s Jasmine is clearly a modern day take on A Streetcar Named Desire’s Southern belle Blanche du Bois (surrounded by various better-natured Stanley Kowalskis) but, in the context of post-recession Park Avenue, she becomes the embodiment of a creeping anxiety at the heart of old American money in the brave new world. Allen’s pitiful last was To Rome with Love; his latest, a magnificent ‘To New York with Bile’. Call it what you will – Blue Jasmine is a thunderous return to form for the filmmaking maestro.