Woody Allen has directed more than forty full-length feature films since his debut in 1966 with What’s Up, Tiger Lily? The quality has been variable (how could it not be?), but the output has remained obstinately steady, despite occasional hiatuses in his private life, the fact that none of these films has been or set out to be a blockbuster, and his own advancing age. Let’s put the overall achievement aside for the moment. Instead, ask yourself in how many of those films has Allen risked moving us? How many of his characters last in your imagination?
The Mariel Hemingway seventeen-year-old is very touching in the last part of Manhattan. The ghosts of Scarlett Johansson and the neighbor have pathos in Match Point, just as, in life, Johansson’s Nola had an erotic immediacy that was unusual for Allen. More often, he acts as if the women in his films must be attractive, but only rarely do we get to feel that. He lusts, there’s no doubt about it, but he’s shy, or he uses shyness as a mask; it’s the Hitchcock pattern. Crimes and Misdemeanors wants to make a tragic figure out of Anjelica Huston and a monster from Martin Landau, though its schematic form and its rather stagnant mood repels involvement. I remember real pain in Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories, especially when we see her while we hear Louis Armstrong playing “Stardust.” I’m going to pass on two films that set out for drama—Interiors and Shadows and Fog—because the sentiments that Allen feels, or wants to feel, are simply not delivered. In general, I do not recall his central characters. It’s as if he surrounded them with support to distract us, and himself, from that unexplored space.
This is not necessarily critical. Woody Allen, most people would agree, makes comedies, and screen comedy doesn’t have to get at profound feelings. Thus with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Tati, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis, we laugh without weighing eternity—though Lewis can get ponderous. Agreed, you would not quite say that for Keaton, Chaplin, or W. C. Fields. But Allen has been high-minded about gravity. He has claimed Ingmar Bergman as his model and even in comedy you often feel that he is reaching for something more lasting and wounding. That may be why the comedy sometimes seems self-conscious and joyless, despite his wit with dialogue. And so his films seldom get at our hearts.
But now there is Blue Jasmine, which seems to me the best film he has ever made. On the face of it, this is more of the recent Woody, a new leg in his grand tour of chic locations—London, Barcelona, Paris, and Rome—which arrives in San Francisco. But Blue Jasmine doesn’t tick off the tourist sites in that city. It prefers colorful seediness and hard-up situations. This is the first American city other than New York that Woody has used as a setting. You should make special allowance for Annie Hall’s snippy attitude toward Los Angeles, but Hollywood Ending was all filmed in New York; and while Sweet and Lowdown claimed Chicago, it was shot at the Astoria Studios. Allen has never admitted the equal rights of another American city. And yet, while the other recent travel films dug into the look and the legend of their cities, Blue Jasmine could actually take place wherever people have trouble. It doesn’t need San Francisco any more than Vertigo did. Breakdown happens anywhere.
Jasmine seldom wears blue. She prefers regal gold, white, and tan. But she is a wreck. She flies into San Francisco (without a glimpse of the famous bridges) to seek refuge with her “sister,” Ginger. Those names tell us how apart they are, and Jasmine is quick to assure anyone that they were both adopted from different parents. So, at the outset, Allen is doing something he has seldom done before: he gets into class. Jasmine is a penniless socialite (who still flew first class). Ginger works as a check-out clerk at a neighborhood market; she has two overweight sons; a loud, vulgar boyfriend; and a cramped apartment. She might be a cliché blue-collar single mother, but Sally Hawkins brings all her untidy warmth and generosity to humanize the part.
And Jasmine needs kindness, as well as a job and somewhere to live after fleeing Manhattan. She had been married to Hal, a shark made out of full-court press charm and money, until suddenly his act evaporated. He was a cheat: he slept with most women he encountered and he was the instrument of a Madoff-like commercial fraud. His crimes may not be on quite that scale, though he ate up the precious $200,000 Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie, won in the lottery. Did Jasmine know about the cheating, or had she long ago perfected the habit of learning not to look? She talks to strangers without noticing whether they are listening or not. She is stupid, self-centered, and not kind, awash in vodka, Xanax, and self-delusion.
Jasmine is played by Cate Blanchett and, while the year is only half over, I cannot believe that she will not get an Oscar nomination. This passionate actress has never made so unsympathetic a character so overwhelming and human. But in the process she has prompted something the Mariel Hemingway character asked of Woody in Manhattan: have a little faith in people. All too often, Allen has had the chronic habit of making condescending fun of his characters. Putting himself in the films with them was an insidious part of that. But here, in a whole film, he has respected the emotional life of his characters, and gone as far as tragedy.
Jasmine has panicky hopes of a new life, and she comes close, but when she meets a new man (the weakest figure in the story), she cannot help but lie to him, and he cannot deal with that. So this woman who has had Edison’s medicine (electroshock treatment) and medication, and who has the good fortune to have such a “sister” as Ginger, has lost everything, because her life was founded on money, cheating, and not noticing. Allen does not turn this into a socioeconomic analysis, but a subtle story, fragmented by telling flashbacks, makes the case as clear as the imminent collapse of Russia in Uncle Vanya or Three Sisters.
There are times when Allen has seemed to cast his films by rounding up the hottest performers of the moment and pushing them in front of the camera. That is not the case here. Sally Hawkins brings the lower-class directness she has explored in Mike Leigh’s films, while Blanchett’s performance plainly resonates with A Streetcar Named Desire and Blanche DuBois, a project she played in Sydney and New York just four years ago. Bobby Cannavale, a stage actor of renown who has been unduly neglected by movies, is a shot of rowdy vitality as Chili, Ginger’s boyfriend. Andrew Dice Clay, not quickly recognizable, is excellent as the ex-husband Augie, and Louis C. K. is outstanding as a brief, horny fling in Ginger’s life. Alec Baldwin’s Hal is exactly what you would expect; it’s only a sketch, but it makes you realize how naturally Baldwin could take on some of the great frauds in American life.
What has happened? This is a film like dozens Allen has done in terms of length, scale, crew, and musical accompaniment. (There is a jazz score, which might have been improved or dropped for some new music.) You sometimes feel that the other actors look at Blanchett, recognize her daring, and rise to the challenge. Equally, you could say that Blanchett is inspired by the others. Did Blanchett invent her part? I think that is fanciful. This story is one of Allen’s best, and the flashback structure is organic and poignant. The director may have worried the actress by asking for many takes, and that may have made her insecure sometimes. But Jasmine is the soul of insecurity, so I give Allen credit.
Allen has made some exceptional films in the past—Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Match Point, Annie Hall, and Manhattan. But too often he has ducked the very depth and simplicity of drama that he says he aspires to. In this way he has cheated on his own characters and lived up to the tired cliché that, if it’s Woody Allen, it must be funny. Blue Jasmine has some laughs, but as the film advances, and as Jasmine herself becomes a wretched figure of stress, the audience falls quiet. They know they are seeing something out of the ordinary—a picture that, in its way, says as much about the culture of deceit, money, and avoidance as any film in years. Sooner or later a major film-maker has to give us someone we will never forget. Jasmine is that someone.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.