Watching “Blue Jasmine”
The audience at the “Blue Jasmine” screening that I attended really seemed to enjoy the film, Woody Allen’s latest. Some people broke into applause, and I could hear appreciative laughter.
I found these reactions baffling, because “Blue Jasmine” triggered almost no emotional response in me. As films go, I thought it was diverting enough, but a failure at some basic level. Which is why I think it’s worth noting how everybody else seemed to feel about the film. If it sounds interesting to you, go see it. When it comes to “Blue Jasmine,” my opinion is obviously not shared by the majority of moviegoers.
For the most part, I’ve liked Woody Allen’s more recent films; “Midnight in Paris” was my favorite film of 2011. In general, I think critics have been too hard on Allen’s later films, and I was fully prepared to sing the praises of “Blue Jasmine.” Trouble is, I just didn’t like it very much.
The film tells the story of a woman named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who has fallen on hard times: Her Bernie Madoff-like husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), killed himself in prison after being convicted of shady financial crimes. “Blue Jasmine” opens as Jasmine is arriving in San Francisco to stay with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine has always looked down on Ginger, and immediately criticizes her for dating the wrong men: Her former husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), was a loser, and so is her current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine is unpleasant, but also disruptive. She’s an utter snob, accustomed to the finer things in life, now forced to fend for herself and seek help from people she’d rather ignore. She decides to go back to school and work as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, both of which go badly.
Meanwhile, Ginger takes Jasmine’s criticisms to heart. She begins to wonder whether she could do better than Chili, and when Jasmine brings her to a party, she hooks up with a friendly sound engineer, Al (Louis C.K.). Jasmine also meets someone at this party: An up-and-coming politician named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). They hit it off, though Jasmine chooses to lie about her unfortunate past rather than risk scaring him away with the truth.
Anyway, this all sets the stage for a film touching upon some of Woody Allen’s favorite themes: infidelity, dishonesty, discord between men and women, etc. His more recent interest in class differences and social climbing is also on full display. The writing is generally witty, and individual scenes tend to be humorous, insightful and cutting. The performances are top-notch: Blanchett is good, but I was actually more intrigued by her co-stars, and Allen’s surprisingly effective stunt casting of Andrew Dice Clay as a blue-collar schlub.
Overall, though, little about “Blue Jasmine” struck me as particularly resonant, or smart. Allen has done a better job of exploring the film’s themes in his previous work, and his misanthropy is actually off-putting, which is the sort of thing I never thought I’d say, being a bit of a misanthrope myself. Walking out of the film, my basic feeling was that Woody Allen hates everybody and doesn’t care if everybody knows it. I sensed little compassion for Jasmine, who is one of the least likable screen characters in memory (and, again, there’s nothing wrong with that) or anybody else. Ginger, Chili and Augie are all portrayed as unlovable and unsophisticated buffoons, the dentist Jasmine goes to work for is a lecherous creep and pretty much everybody is cheating on somebody, or lying to somebody or generally just behaving poorly.
I suspect that what bugged me was how unoriginal “Blue Jasmine” was. Of course the dentist hit on Jasmine! What would have been shocking is if he turned out to be a genuinely decent guy. At times, the film reminded me of John Cassevetes’ bracing and unpleasant depiction of a woman having a mental breakdown, 1974’s “A Woman Under the Influence.” But the Cassevetes film is perceptive and honest, to the point where it’s almost painful to watch, while “Blue Jasmine” pulls its punches, making a joke of mental illness, the recession and the struggles of everyday people. In the end, I found little to take away from it. Its jokes didn’t seem that funny, its insights didn’t seem that sharp and its worldview seemed old and tired.
But most people seem to disagree with me, so go see it for yourself.
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