Woody Allen finds comedy (but not too much!) in the tragedy of ‘Blue Jasmine’

August 14, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 14, 2013

Author’s note: Having noticed a handful of typos and textual loose ends in this post, I made some adjustments on Aug. 21, 2015. I’ve used boldface (like so) and strikethrough lines (like this) to mark all but the most minor changes. MEM

When we first meet Jasmine, the antiheroine of Woody Allen’s new film, she is a character in free fall. Her successful but disgraced husband, Hal, recently committed suicide in prison; now destitute, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is flying across the continent to move into her sister’s modest San Francisco apartment.

Life with Ginger is destined to be rocky, we learn even before the two characters are shown in the same frame. Jasmine is a college dropout with no work experience, computer aptitude or other job skills, not to mention that she’s horribly whiny, spoiled, self-pitying and snobbish. Both Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were adopted, but the former had an excellent relationship with their parents, while the latter had a rocky one. (Ginger likes to joke, seemingly without bitterness, that Jasmine got the good genes.)

Those things alone would make the situation prickly. But there’s also the fact that the crooked Hal (Alec Baldwin) purloined the lottery winnings of Ginger and her then-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, demonstrating superb dramatic chops), thereby leading to the breakup of their marriage. And that’s not even mentioning the nearly immediate enmity that springs up between Jasmine and Ginger’s current fiancé, Chili (Bobby Cannavale).

This combustible mix forms the setup for Blue Jasmine, the 44th feature film directed by the astonishingly prolific Allen. Unlike the director’s three previous movies — You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (set in London), Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love — this picture is set exclusively in and around New York City and San Francisco. From a geographic point of view, it resembles the director’s 2009 movie, Whatever Works, which took place entirely in New York. (Several of Allen’s movies prior to Whatever Works had been located in Europe, especially London.)

The two features have more than that in common, though. Neither main character — Jasmine here, Boris in the 2009 film — cuts much of a heroic figure; it’s often hard to find them sympathetic.

But Blue Jasmine is much darker than Whatever Works. If that movie was essentially a comedy with tragic undertones, this one is a tragedy with comic notes. And while Whatever Works wrapped its narrative up with a nice, neat bow, Blue Jasmine arguably provides no such closure.

The story tracks the two sisters over the course of several weeks as they grapple with various personal and romantic challenges. The contemporary action is intertwined with flashbacks to Jasmine’s marriage to Hal, a Bernie Madoff stand-in whose crimes and misdemeanors extend beyond the financial realm.

Part of the appeal Blue Jasmine held for me is its ebb and flow. The protagonist is likable at some points, loathsome at others. Similarly, she moves by turns toward and away from one form or another of personal redemption. In one pivotal scene, it’s possible to feel positive and excited for Jasmine even as she risks her own undoing. This movie feels truer to life — messy, confusing, ever-changing life — than most other films.

Jasmine’s great foil is Ginger, a supermarket worker who could hardly be more different from her sister. Ginger, forgiving to a fault, continually absorbs Jasmine’s slights and snubs yet is always willing to give her sibling another chance. After selflessly trying to buffer Jasmine and Chili from one another, Ginger attempts to find fulfillment with a self-indulgent escapade that threatens to wreck her life.

While Jasmine’s New York is a fantasy world of polo matches and high-end boutiques, Ginger’s city by the bay is a gritty realm in which a waterfront cafe rubs elbows with a dry-dock facility. (A massive freighter suspended above the water functions as an all too apt metaphor for the title character.)

As much as I enjoyed Blue Jasmine, I suspect that it won’t be ranked among Woody Allen’s greats. The film is stronger as a character study than a story, thanks in part to two glaring plot contrivances. It also suffers somewhat from being neither fish nor fowl — it doesn’t have enough comic moments to qualify as hilarious, yet it has so many that some may have trouble accepting it as serious drama.

So be it. I think of Blue Jasmine as a challenging but enjoyable film that raises important questions about what it means to find happiness and success — and, perhaps more importantly, how one should go about having integrity and being a good person. More than many recent Allen movies, I believe, this is a picture that will reward repeat viewings.

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