Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

After a few films that do serious funny, such as the delirious Midnight In Paris and the slightly less gloriously fizzy To Rome with Love, as well as his tetralogy in London, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, along with Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream, the Woodster is officially back from the UK, Madrid, Paris and Rome, to home soil again. He is not about the nervous recognition laugh this time out. San Francisco and Marin County, NYC and the Bay Area, in the top-tony sancta of the glassily rich, and the scruffy, wife-beater-singlet dinge of the lower-middle, are his foci.

The prolific Mr. Allen: Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's 14th film since the millennium, if you're keeping count. No secret that Allen will set up shop in whatever locus/city donates a substantial production grant/stipend of anywhere from a quarter- to a million and more if he dangles producing a film in their fair city.

This travelogue time out, San Fran got the gilded Allen halo, though it seems a far cry from the SF the rest of the country knows. No matter. Film is by definition filmy, not unlike the colorful gauzy scarves Blanche Dubois and Jasmine prototype (Jeanette by birth) toss over the  room lamps in N'Awleans to 'soften the glare' of unflattering light on the face.  The NYC and the California scenes seem chock-a-block with lower-echelon types, exemplified by a rare more-than-foot in water by Andrew Dice Clay (MIA for lo, some 20 years, according to a recent on-air in late July) and an adorable lowlife but earnest Bobby Cannivale, playing Chili (swiftly becoming a personal fave, after recent stints on "Nurse Jackie" as an officious hospital head of department arse and on Broadway as a harried writer in the terrific Clifford Odets revival, "The Big Knife"), along with a B-side of average Joes intent on their beer, sports and just hanging out trying to live their lives. 

Baldwin steps out again after his narrator-framing character in To Rome, this time in a skeevy Madoff-redux role he broke in back in 1996, in Miami Blues, as a charming, conscience-free cold-eyed petty crook to the ingénue heart-o'-gold hooker played by teenaged Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sally Hawkins, so wonderful in the Brit romp, the infectiously optimistic Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), is enjoying a reprise here, too, as younger sis Ginger, having first appeared in Allen's Cassandra's Dream.

Like his work or not, as a director, Allen has always led the crowd in recognizing lapidary talent he finds and features before the rest. You can make bank on the exquisiteness of his casting. (Full disclosure: I am still [sort of] downcast he declined to cast me in one of his [non-funny] flicks. After I saw the final cut, I thanked heaven he hadn't put me into the B/W freak show. You live forever in ignominy, frump, ditz or weirdness in all Woody flicks.)

With a filmography output of a film a year for roughly 35 years, he can be forgiven if he here cribs a plotline or two. With BJ, Woody Allen borrows from one of the best. Tennessee Williams, whose scalpel to the jugular of the disappointed but crawling-out-alive Deep South was exorcized in his timeless Streetcar Named Desire.

Most movies could play sleazy Madoff-type conmen and their outsize philandering and living large for cheap laughs. Not Woody. He sets the scene immaculately, with the slick golden real estate nabob (Alec Baldwin) in his tasteful and money-drenched aeries of fantasy money and glitter, a glossy if absolutely unemployable arm-candy wife (Cate Blanchette, certain to land her an Oscar nom). She dimly experiences life on the salon-yoga-shopping-charity mandatory must-be-seen lifestyle Roladex. Not incidentally, Alec Baldwin in fact played Stanley Kowalski, Blanche Dubois' brother-in-law nemesis, in a 1995 Streetcar. The role of latter-day beau Mitch, in Streetcar, is played by the popular if raffish comic, Louis CK, who here swains younger sister, Sally/Stella, Ms. Hawkins.

Brief recap: You probably recall Streetcar, if not from high school junior drama days, then from the brooding rough eroticism of Marlon Brando as Kowalski, his wife, sweetly besotted Stella, in her now-tatty living milieu by her macho husband. 

Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the restless years following WWII, A Streetcar Named Desire is the story of Blanche DuBois, a fragile and neurotic woman on a cascading search for someplace in the world to call safe, to rest.  Blanche explains her unexpected appearance on Stanley and Stella's (Blanche's sister) doorstep as nervous exhaustion. In reality, she has been exiled from hometown Laurel, Mississippi, for seducing a 17-year-old student at a school where she taught English. She claims her exhaustion is due to a series of financial reverses that have claimed the family plantation, Belle Reve.  Stanley, unimpressed with her explanations, states that "under Louisiana's Napoleonic code, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband." Stanley, sinewy and brutish, territorial as a panther, circles Blanche in a mix of distrust and intolerance; he doesn't cotton to being swindled of his wife's patrimony and demands to see the bill of sale. They are opposing camps; wife Stella, soft, accommodative and uncomplicated, is caught in a no-man's-land. She and Stanley are, in fact, despite the difference in their early stations, in love.

Stella (Ginger in BJ) in Tennessee's play is simple, accommodating, drunk with love; and the fragile cut-bloom of Blanche, done to the nth by Vivien Leigh in the 1949 Streetcar, is a shadowy, fragile neurotic reduced in circumstance by events we learn gradually as she tries to collect herself in the shabby home of her sister and visceral, suspicious brother-in-law Stanley. Where is the family money? he asks throughout. Neurasthenic, delicate Blanche cannot be questioned. She has no firm answers to anything except her need for beauty and recovering lost...dignity, status. Peace of spirit. It does not end well for her.

Blanche/Blanchette/Jasmine is alluring, seductive, neurotic and mournful, prone to dark, cryptic pronouncements -- the centripetal force of the film. In her shadowy past there are hints of poverty and sexual misdeeds or abuse. Men find her bewitching because there is so much they don't know. On a physical level, she is willowy and stunningly fair, blonde, unable. They interpret her remote fragility as the promise of female salvation and unearned ego-propagation. Here is a wounded being, the Southern male thinks, per Southern Mr. Williams. She does not challenge nor question, but will gratefully, perhaps erotically, accept the gallant assigns of affection consigned by the undemanding shaky ego'ed male...She has few definitive edges or constructive ideas except to get herself a safe niche. Strapped for cash, she reluctantly accepts a receptionist job with a horny dentist.

This classic scaffolding and a scant few laughs offset the sad reminders of Woody's obsession with his own eventual demise. Allen has been working on these late films for nearly two decades. This latest, Blue Jasmine, is a return to yeasty, emotional 80s Allen. It is a bittersweet, engrossing epilogue. Or a nervous, unreconstructed prologue.

Cate Blanchett is the title character, born Jeanette, then husband-dubbed Jasmine. She is the wife of an indulgent, dodgy finance oil-slick played by Alec Baldwin. He is not beyond a bit of philandering; it doesn't much surprise that Baldwin is a crook, though his wife, like a "Sopranos" spouse, is not concerned or even dimly aware of how she gets her palatial home and jewels and designer clothing. She's a full-time, subsidized self-absorbed foundation. Charity parties. Entertaining. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba. Shopping. Looking beautiful, matching the décor to her loungewear. Baldwin and cosseted wife lose everything in a squalid financial scandal. Jasmine westers to San Francisco to move in with her guileless sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a checkout girl at a grocery store. Her one-time husband is an earthy contractor played by Andrew Dice Clay. She has no airs, is a mom of two boys, and willingly shares what she has, ignoring the condescension and little-masked scorn of her elder sister. We account for the notable differences in physical traits, IQ and personalities by understanding both were adopted. "You were always smarter than I was," comments Ginger in reply to most unreconciled soliloquies by her reduced Blanche/Jasmine.

Allen hasn't set a film on the West Coast since scenes in Annie Hall. So it's odd that his SF seems as if it's somewhere near Hoboken, filled with dese, dem and dose types with unpretentious vocations instead of idolaters and oblivious self-promoting millionaires. But Woody's cities have always been as much a paradisiacal avatar, caught by his glorious cinematographers, as Chevalier's Paris. Don't go to Woody expecting subway graffiti or traffic backup on the L.A. Freeway. But he gets Marin County and the Bay area: the vapidities, casual wealth and enbubbled lives of the über privileged. Full of, as Alvie says in Annie Hall, "wheat-germ killers."

The two sisters cohabit uncomfortably together in a too-small apartment -- "it's so...cozy," Jasmine notes -- and they each meet male love objects: an aspiring diplomat and a shvitzy audio tech, played by comic Louis C.K., who showcases the hyper, entitled and down vibe of the area.

Blanchette is amazing, breathtaking as the shrill narcissist falling apart. Her desperate prowl for a safe landfall makes her seem histrionic, but she is always in the act of creating an alternate, acceptable reality for herself, reflecting her dismissal of her actual fallen circumstance in the grubby present. Like Blanche, Jasmine's self-delusions and thrice-told bravura tales have finally worn through. In a revealing moment she explains more to herself than to her skeptical little nephews -- who here form the Greek dithyramb Allen featured in Mighty Aphrodite -- when they ask if it's true she went nuts, that "there are only so many traumas a person can bear..." Her disintegration is graphic. Even her little nephews note the distance between their sane mother and their flighty, uncertain aunt.

BJ is a layered rendering of a woman in a crisis of self-definition after living in cushy denial most of her vague life. It's guilt, trauma and retribution, of accepting the obvious, themes beautifully developed in his masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors, which some (me) consider his masterwork. His icy analysis of this character's state of denial is always at an artistic remove. Blue Jasmine, again, is Allen's umpteenth film since 2000; accurate, in a sense, yet absent self-involvement. Again, his casting kills, going further in developing his themes than most directors' casts manage to achieve.

Jasmine's efforts to impose herself between Ginger and her men, her unending haranguing of her sister's rather unprepossessing males, enrages the animal inside first mate Dice Clay, then fiancé Cannivale. When Mitch/Peter Sarsgaard, a diplomat on the rise, arrives on the scene, acutely class-conscious Blanche swiftly sees a way out of her spiraling predicament. Sarsgaard, wealthy, suave, polished and above the brutish, himself on the rise, reveres Jasmine as beautiful and refined, focusing on her expensive and understated wardrobe, her beauty, and her distracted, unthinking superior airs. Yet, as tendrils of truth emerge of Blanche's/Jasmine's past -- her suicided financial-cheat spouse, her financial destitution, an unspoken-of adult son, are spilled by an inadvertent meeting with her sister's ex-spouse Clay-suddenly catch up to her and her ideal mate, her circumstances become unbearable.

A not-funny Allen is still, overall, and with all the usual caveats (at least he's not lampooning and flagellating his Jewish background here, as he did in so many of the early, funny films; and he's not lambasting all women as unbearable, unisexual shrews, ditto; and he does switch laugh-triggers in updating his standard Valium throwaways to Xanax in the set-upon heroine) top shelf stuff. The good part is that for the average cineaste, we can watch the hybridity of his spoiled and soiled rich and poor lives with dispassion, since they are not the commonality of our picayune days. We aren't Jasmine. And our crooked menfolk may have their bêtes noirs, au verts, but they are not Alec Baldwin/Madoffs. 

If we had to choose, the message BJ is communicating is that loving passionately and plainly without all the tchotchkes of great wealth, ill-begotten especially, beats the hell out of loving money and privilege, both of which can be wilting, fleeting and dissolute. There is no hint of mission drift here; Allen grips the story, tells the hairy alarums of the wealthy, heedless life, and pays off the watch with a remorseless dénouement. A film risque and melancholy, moody and invested with intensely engaged and sometimes sexy performances, it is ultimately tragic.

After a few films that do serious funny, such as the delirious Midnight In Paris and the slightly less gloriously fizzy To Rome with Love, as well as his tetralogy in London, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, along with Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream, the Woodster is officially back from the UK, Madrid, Paris and Rome, to home soil again. He is not about the nervous recognition laugh this time out. San Francisco and Marin County, NYC and the Bay Area, in the top-tony sancta of the glassily rich, and the scruffy, wife-beater-singlet dinge of the lower-middle, are his foci.

The prolific Mr. Allen: Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's 14th film since the millennium, if you're keeping count. No secret that Allen will set up shop in whatever locus/city donates a substantial production grant/stipend of anywhere from a quarter- to a million and more if he dangles producing a film in their fair city.

This travelogue time out, San Fran got the gilded Allen halo, though it seems a far cry from the SF the rest of the country knows. No matter. Film is by definition filmy, not unlike the colorful gauzy scarves Blanche Dubois and Jasmine prototype (Jeanette by birth) toss over the  room lamps in N'Awleans to 'soften the glare' of unflattering light on the face.  The NYC and the California scenes seem chock-a-block with lower-echelon types, exemplified by a rare more-than-foot in water by Andrew Dice Clay (MIA for lo, some 20 years, according to a recent on-air in late July) and an adorable lowlife but earnest Bobby Cannivale, playing Chili (swiftly becoming a personal fave, after recent stints on "Nurse Jackie" as an officious hospital head of department arse and on Broadway as a harried writer in the terrific Clifford Odets revival, "The Big Knife"), along with a B-side of average Joes intent on their beer, sports and just hanging out trying to live their lives. 

Baldwin steps out again after his narrator-framing character in To Rome, this time in a skeevy Madoff-redux role he broke in back in 1996, in Miami Blues, as a charming, conscience-free cold-eyed petty crook to the ingénue heart-o'-gold hooker played by teenaged Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sally Hawkins, so wonderful in the Brit romp, the infectiously optimistic Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), is enjoying a reprise here, too, as younger sis Ginger, having first appeared in Allen's Cassandra's Dream.

Like his work or not, as a director, Allen has always led the crowd in recognizing lapidary talent he finds and features before the rest. You can make bank on the exquisiteness of his casting. (Full disclosure: I am still [sort of] downcast he declined to cast me in one of his [non-funny] flicks. After I saw the final cut, I thanked heaven he hadn't put me into the B/W freak show. You live forever in ignominy, frump, ditz or weirdness in all Woody flicks.)

With a filmography output of a film a year for roughly 35 years, he can be forgiven if he here cribs a plotline or two. With BJ, Woody Allen borrows from one of the best. Tennessee Williams, whose scalpel to the jugular of the disappointed but crawling-out-alive Deep South was exorcized in his timeless Streetcar Named Desire.

Most movies could play sleazy Madoff-type conmen and their outsize philandering and living large for cheap laughs. Not Woody. He sets the scene immaculately, with the slick golden real estate nabob (Alec Baldwin) in his tasteful and money-drenched aeries of fantasy money and glitter, a glossy if absolutely unemployable arm-candy wife (Cate Blanchette, certain to land her an Oscar nom). She dimly experiences life on the salon-yoga-shopping-charity mandatory must-be-seen lifestyle Roladex. Not incidentally, Alec Baldwin in fact played Stanley Kowalski, Blanche Dubois' brother-in-law nemesis, in a 1995 Streetcar. The role of latter-day beau Mitch, in Streetcar, is played by the popular if raffish comic, Louis CK, who here swains younger sister, Sally/Stella, Ms. Hawkins.

Brief recap: You probably recall Streetcar, if not from high school junior drama days, then from the brooding rough eroticism of Marlon Brando as Kowalski, his wife, sweetly besotted Stella, in her now-tatty living milieu by her macho husband. 

Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the restless years following WWII, A Streetcar Named Desire is the story of Blanche DuBois, a fragile and neurotic woman on a cascading search for someplace in the world to call safe, to rest.  Blanche explains her unexpected appearance on Stanley and Stella's (Blanche's sister) doorstep as nervous exhaustion. In reality, she has been exiled from hometown Laurel, Mississippi, for seducing a 17-year-old student at a school where she taught English. She claims her exhaustion is due to a series of financial reverses that have claimed the family plantation, Belle Reve.  Stanley, unimpressed with her explanations, states that "under Louisiana's Napoleonic code, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband." Stanley, sinewy and brutish, territorial as a panther, circles Blanche in a mix of distrust and intolerance; he doesn't cotton to being swindled of his wife's patrimony and demands to see the bill of sale. They are opposing camps; wife Stella, soft, accommodative and uncomplicated, is caught in a no-man's-land. She and Stanley are, in fact, despite the difference in their early stations, in love.

Stella (Ginger in BJ) in Tennessee's play is simple, accommodating, drunk with love; and the fragile cut-bloom of Blanche, done to the nth by Vivien Leigh in the 1949 Streetcar, is a shadowy, fragile neurotic reduced in circumstance by events we learn gradually as she tries to collect herself in the shabby home of her sister and visceral, suspicious brother-in-law Stanley. Where is the family money? he asks throughout. Neurasthenic, delicate Blanche cannot be questioned. She has no firm answers to anything except her need for beauty and recovering lost...dignity, status. Peace of spirit. It does not end well for her.

Blanche/Blanchette/Jasmine is alluring, seductive, neurotic and mournful, prone to dark, cryptic pronouncements -- the centripetal force of the film. In her shadowy past there are hints of poverty and sexual misdeeds or abuse. Men find her bewitching because there is so much they don't know. On a physical level, she is willowy and stunningly fair, blonde, unable. They interpret her remote fragility as the promise of female salvation and unearned ego-propagation. Here is a wounded being, the Southern male thinks, per Southern Mr. Williams. She does not challenge nor question, but will gratefully, perhaps erotically, accept the gallant assigns of affection consigned by the undemanding shaky ego'ed male...She has few definitive edges or constructive ideas except to get herself a safe niche. Strapped for cash, she reluctantly accepts a receptionist job with a horny dentist.

This classic scaffolding and a scant few laughs offset the sad reminders of Woody's obsession with his own eventual demise. Allen has been working on these late films for nearly two decades. This latest, Blue Jasmine, is a return to yeasty, emotional 80s Allen. It is a bittersweet, engrossing epilogue. Or a nervous, unreconstructed prologue.

Cate Blanchett is the title character, born Jeanette, then husband-dubbed Jasmine. She is the wife of an indulgent, dodgy finance oil-slick played by Alec Baldwin. He is not beyond a bit of philandering; it doesn't much surprise that Baldwin is a crook, though his wife, like a "Sopranos" spouse, is not concerned or even dimly aware of how she gets her palatial home and jewels and designer clothing. She's a full-time, subsidized self-absorbed foundation. Charity parties. Entertaining. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba. Shopping. Looking beautiful, matching the décor to her loungewear. Baldwin and cosseted wife lose everything in a squalid financial scandal. Jasmine westers to San Francisco to move in with her guileless sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a checkout girl at a grocery store. Her one-time husband is an earthy contractor played by Andrew Dice Clay. She has no airs, is a mom of two boys, and willingly shares what she has, ignoring the condescension and little-masked scorn of her elder sister. We account for the notable differences in physical traits, IQ and personalities by understanding both were adopted. "You were always smarter than I was," comments Ginger in reply to most unreconciled soliloquies by her reduced Blanche/Jasmine.

Allen hasn't set a film on the West Coast since scenes in Annie Hall. So it's odd that his SF seems as if it's somewhere near Hoboken, filled with dese, dem and dose types with unpretentious vocations instead of idolaters and oblivious self-promoting millionaires. But Woody's cities have always been as much a paradisiacal avatar, caught by his glorious cinematographers, as Chevalier's Paris. Don't go to Woody expecting subway graffiti or traffic backup on the L.A. Freeway. But he gets Marin County and the Bay area: the vapidities, casual wealth and enbubbled lives of the über privileged. Full of, as Alvie says in Annie Hall, "wheat-germ killers."

The two sisters cohabit uncomfortably together in a too-small apartment -- "it's so...cozy," Jasmine notes -- and they each meet male love objects: an aspiring diplomat and a shvitzy audio tech, played by comic Louis C.K., who showcases the hyper, entitled and down vibe of the area.

Blanchette is amazing, breathtaking as the shrill narcissist falling apart. Her desperate prowl for a safe landfall makes her seem histrionic, but she is always in the act of creating an alternate, acceptable reality for herself, reflecting her dismissal of her actual fallen circumstance in the grubby present. Like Blanche, Jasmine's self-delusions and thrice-told bravura tales have finally worn through. In a revealing moment she explains more to herself than to her skeptical little nephews -- who here form the Greek dithyramb Allen featured in Mighty Aphrodite -- when they ask if it's true she went nuts, that "there are only so many traumas a person can bear..." Her disintegration is graphic. Even her little nephews note the distance between their sane mother and their flighty, uncertain aunt.

BJ is a layered rendering of a woman in a crisis of self-definition after living in cushy denial most of her vague life. It's guilt, trauma and retribution, of accepting the obvious, themes beautifully developed in his masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors, which some (me) consider his masterwork. His icy analysis of this character's state of denial is always at an artistic remove. Blue Jasmine, again, is Allen's umpteenth film since 2000; accurate, in a sense, yet absent self-involvement. Again, his casting kills, going further in developing his themes than most directors' casts manage to achieve.

Jasmine's efforts to impose herself between Ginger and her men, her unending haranguing of her sister's rather unprepossessing males, enrages the animal inside first mate Dice Clay, then fiancé Cannivale. When Mitch/Peter Sarsgaard, a diplomat on the rise, arrives on the scene, acutely class-conscious Blanche swiftly sees a way out of her spiraling predicament. Sarsgaard, wealthy, suave, polished and above the brutish, himself on the rise, reveres Jasmine as beautiful and refined, focusing on her expensive and understated wardrobe, her beauty, and her distracted, unthinking superior airs. Yet, as tendrils of truth emerge of Blanche's/Jasmine's past -- her suicided financial-cheat spouse, her financial destitution, an unspoken-of adult son, are spilled by an inadvertent meeting with her sister's ex-spouse Clay-suddenly catch up to her and her ideal mate, her circumstances become unbearable.

A not-funny Allen is still, overall, and with all the usual caveats (at least he's not lampooning and flagellating his Jewish background here, as he did in so many of the early, funny films; and he's not lambasting all women as unbearable, unisexual shrews, ditto; and he does switch laugh-triggers in updating his standard Valium throwaways to Xanax in the set-upon heroine) top shelf stuff. The good part is that for the average cineaste, we can watch the hybridity of his spoiled and soiled rich and poor lives with dispassion, since they are not the commonality of our picayune days. We aren't Jasmine. And our crooked menfolk may have their bêtes noirs, au verts, but they are not Alec Baldwin/Madoffs. 

If we had to choose, the message BJ is communicating is that loving passionately and plainly without all the tchotchkes of great wealth, ill-begotten especially, beats the hell out of loving money and privilege, both of which can be wilting, fleeting and dissolute. There is no hint of mission drift here; Allen grips the story, tells the hairy alarums of the wealthy, heedless life, and pays off the watch with a remorseless dénouement. A film risque and melancholy, moody and invested with intensely engaged and sometimes sexy performances, it is ultimately tragic.

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