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All That Jas: Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine Reviewed
David Katz , September 30th, 2013 06:13

David Katz reviews Woody Allen's latest alleged return to form, starring Cate Blanchett

Kubrick was down to once-a-decade by the end of his career. Malick famously took a hiatus of 20 years. Paul Thomas Anderson, always so self-conscious, is determined to take his damn time. New work by fabled film artists is so often a rare delicacy: the chance to anticipate and then gorge on apparently studied, considered, finely-wrought work. But Woody Allen, equal to that preceding trio, has a different tack. Not 12 months goes by without the actualisation of something from his trusty Olympia SM-3 typewriter at his Manhattan apartment desk. Yet this is both a boon and a burden, because Allen can be careless and repetitive as a scenarist. Each new screenplay, however, is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the previous one; his vim for rounding out his oeuvre with new stories remains infectious.

Articles about Woody written in this decade are often laments on the disposability of his more recent efforts, international co-productions such as Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Those films live up to their reputation as airless trifles: genial but lazy, content to please yet unknowing in their irritation. Eager to spout condescending homilies about artists and intellectuals, whilst displaying little curiosity about how real people actually behave. His new film Blue Jasmine attempts to redress an imbalance in his recent subject matter, and hone in more closely on character, but it comes similarly unstuck. In its strivings for emotional transparency, Allen only unveils his remoteness from the realistic contexts his protagonists and audience face. Blue Jasmine’s whiff of contrivance and unreality is immediately evident, as its purported stark glare is finally revealed as frigid.

You may have heard that it delivers a marquee-worthy performance from Cate Blanchett, who until recently was taking a sabbatical from film as artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company. As the brittle, neurotic Jasmine of the title, she delivers an unerringly precise and technically brilliant riff on the disgraced woman of privilege - it’s as if she’s unglamorously elbowing her way back into our estimations of her as a great screen actress after so long away. Chased out of her Park Avenue home after her finance trader husband’s investment fraud is discovered, she alights across the country to stay with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, in her second film with Allen) in San Francisco, endeavouring to put her life back together.

The film begins its address to the audience by contrasting Ginger’s unpretentious working-class life in the Mission with Jasmine’s indulgences as an Upper East Side scene queen. The intended effect is to slosh Jasmine with a sharp dose of reality: not everyone has a personal driver, a walk-in wardrobe and a second home in the Hamptons. But as a counterpoint, Allen’s depiction of San Francisco leaves much to be desired. Confronted with a chance to dig deep into Jasmine’s self-absorption, he bridles by reverting to the embarrassing working-class stereotypes that have marred his work; and he engineers social circumstances that merely knock her off balance, rather than examine her with any necessary rigour. Bobby Cannavale and Louis C.K., as romantic interests for Ginger, become merely fall-guy jesters, so Allen can re-assert Jasmine’s haughty prejudices with a tossed-off one-liner. Blanchett, fighting as Jasmine with a screen presence worthy of how she must command a stage, is marooned in the centre of this light-farce melee; Allen’s gallery of thinly-written fools is no match for a combative Stanley Kowalski, whom Tennesse Williams pitted against Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the film’s obvious inspiration.

Our sense of how directors appear wholly present in their work is aggressively maintained by Woody Allen. Being an actor delivering his own screenplays, his earlier films were defined by his constant monologuing and lecturing, as if they contained an in-person running commentary, with the director continually on screen. In the rare occasions in the 80’s and 90’s when he didn’t write a part for himself, critics had much fun identifying which of the remaining characters was the ‘Woody surrogate’. Much of the praise for Blue Jasmine has centered around the notion that Woody has finally created an autonomous, three-dimensional protagonist, an opportunity for him to finally observe someone else apart from yet another refracted version of himself. But if we’re not so receptive to this conceit, the self-centeredness, flippancy and paranoia of Jasmine really begin to resemble someone all too familiar. The film’s impact is muted by the suggestion that Woody’s view of the world isn’t dissimilar to Jasmine’s, that only the pizzazz of well-bred New York living is really enough. To return to the image of Woody’s iconic typewriter, there’s a parallel here in how Jasmine needs to attend computer classes to cure her techno-illiteracy, and be ready and available for the challenges of her new life. Blue Jasmine, and much of Allen’s recent output, is a cry of bad faith against a world, cinematic or not, that doesn’t reduce convincingly to his prescriptions. We too, as an audience, are just as guilty of indulging him.

Blue Jasmine is in cinemas now