Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” Depresses and Disappoints

The other night I sidled up alongside my lady at the charming Avon Cinema in Providence, RI. With Cream Soda in hand, I was ready to take a chance on Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine. Full disclosure: I despised his last flick, To Rome With Love for being masturbatory, esoteric, and utterly contemptuous of its audience. I wrote my negative reactions last year and more or less lamented the fact that it had to follow the lovable hit, Midnight in Pariswhich was met with positive reviews (i.e., mine and Liam’s reviews). I am admittedly not well-versed in Allen’s work, but I can’t help myself from disliking a lot of what Blue Jasmine was doing.

Blue Jasmine dabbles in the similarly unstructured panic that was To Rome With Love, but this time rather than a spastic collage of jumbled vignettes, it’s a smattering of panic-triggered memories in the life of Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis. These flashbacks augment the main plot where Jeanette/Jasmine, once an elegant New York socialite married to a wealthy businessman, finds herself broke and forced to move in with her adopted sister in San Francisco. The entire movie consists of Jasmine trying to pull herself together after her husband’s downfall all the while combatting crippling anxiety.

Jasmine had only one year left in a liberal arts college when Hal – the Alec Baldwin-driven performance of a charming, scheming Bernie Madoff type – sweeps her off her feet and thrusts her into his decadent lifestyle. There, she becomes a witless trophy life that defines herself by the charities she runs and the quality of guests at her cocktail parties, all the while never asking questions about Hal’s business ventures. Along the way she loses her sense of self and instead focuses entirely on her relationship to Hal and all of the luxuries that come with it. In this way, Woody Allen aspires to a great kind of characterization: what happens when who we are comes into conflict with the fictional version of ourselves that we’ve created? Over the years, Jasmine came to embody that Daisy Buchanon-esque beauty with a voice that is as full of condescension as it is money. She was a smart, pretty orphan that married into decadence only to lose it all. She spends quite a bit of time on screen rambling on and on, speaking so much without saying anything at all. And it works rather well, particularly due to Cate Blanchett.

The absolute best part of Blue Jasmine is Cate Blanchett‘s performance. It quite literally makes the film: comical, lyrical, whimsical, manic, disjointed, calculated, and poised with a touch of madness. Jasmine is a character that put everything she had and everything she was into a dream that fell into her lap as a young girl. Blanchett channels those conflicting emotions in a delightfully maddening way. While Jasmine remains as snotty and self-absorbed as ever through much of the movie, after her dream of being a wealthy wife crumbled into dust, she couldn’t cope with having to grapple with understanding her own existence. So she went mad, and turned to talking to herself and her memories on dusty street corners. She is constantly anxious and popping Zanex more often than she’s sipping a martini with lemon twist – which is far too often.

Martini with a lemon twist? Smeagol wants it.

Let me just say that there are a lot of things that are great in Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett gives us the best performance of the year. Hal as a Bernie Madoff clone definitely entertains the a somewhat older generation. Jasmine’s education – or lack thereof – and her frustration with trying to find the relevance of a liberal arts education in every day life seems strangely relevant to Millennials. Because of this Blue Jasmine has been called Allen’s most topical movie yet. Most of the time, Allen seems to spend all his creative energy flaunting his supposed genius and alienating any viewers that he doesn’t deem smart enough. He never tries to relate to his audience…until he’s 77 years old and makes Blue Jasmine. Here we have a character whose external conflicts reflect an older generation and whose internal conflicts relate to the younger generation. She is the every-woman.

It’s a shame, however, that the structure of the movie winds up being rather frustrating. The flashbacks that detail Jasmine’s past are varied and inconsistent, and at times are downright confusing. At one point I wasn’t even sure if I was in the past or the present. The characters, costumes, and even locations were a bit too similar between the time periods (which is impressive considering the entire past is in New York and the present, San Francisco). Far too early on in the film, Woody Allen had lost me, frustrated me, and convinced me that he didn’t care about his viewers. With a career as prolific as his, maybe he can just get away with lazy filming like that. But that doesn’t make it right.

Worse than apparent disdain for his viewers, Allen gives us absolutely no characters that are likable or even redeemable whatsoever. Similar to To Rome With Love, Blue Jasmine details the misadventures of several characters. Every single one is undeserving of our respect or admiration. Businessmen evade taxes on a massive scale. People in committed relationships cheat on one another. Sisters either judge and openly hate one another or naively tolerate blatantly intolerable behavior. Grown men behave like bitter children while children behave like brainless nitwits. For some reason, this seems to be okay to Allen. This is what Allen thinks of us. We are immoral and mindless monsters anyway, right? Even when he’s making his most topical film ever, Woody Allen is doing it with characters that we relate to but never come to appreciate. Sure, Jasmine and her gum-smacking sister – who is looked upon by both Jasmine and Allen with disdain – might be “human” in how they both expose their weaknesses and make mistakes, but they never learn from them. And neither do we. What is the point of watching them blunder about their lives when there’s no character development whatsoever. Jasmine wallows and Ginger tolerates a clearly intolerable boyfriend. At the end of Blue Jasmine, every person is exactly how they started out, and by Allen’s standards, that’s a really terrible place. It’s one thing to have bad characters who learn from their mistakes and grow from them. But it’s a total other thing to watch weak characters fail and demonstrate a gross lack of self-respect to the bitter, cynical end.

Perhaps the most disgusting instance of this was when Jasmine confronts Hal about his blatant infidelities. Rather than interact with her justified anger, he instead belittles her with typical misogyny that includes the following gem: “Don’t get your temper up. You know I don’t like that side of you!” It’s ludicrous and ridiculous, but it feels like it’s there just to make the audience laugh rather than shock us or be a negative reflection of Hal’s characters. Much like in To Rome With Love, infidelity is no big deal to Woody Allen. Neither is the belittling and subjugation of women apparently.

Once Jasmine starts working and taking a class in computers so that she might get into interior design, things actually start to get better for the film. She begins to learn the value of hard work and there’s a scene when she finally isn’t flustered and anxious booking the schedule at a dentist’s office. In that critical moment, it would have been great to see things click for Jasmine and heck, it would have worked well even considering the rest of the plot. But rather than have that, Allen opts to exacerbate things until Jasmine is forced out of her job due to unrealistic and ridiculous circumstances. Jasmine is infinitely more likable when she’s studying and working hard than when she is climbing the social ladder and singing stories over her martini glass. We should have seen more of her good side, the Jeanette side that was interested in Anthropology in college and wanted to define herself on her own terms. Instead of changing, she instead remains the same.

Ginger (Jasmine’s adopted sister) and Augie (Ginger’s ex-husband)

Blue Jasmine‘s culminating message is a bleak one which could have been permissable if Woody Allen hadn’t stuffed the words to describe it right into a character’s mouth. Some might remember when a similar thing happened in To Rome With Love: a chauffeur essentially says, “Life sucks! But if you’re a rich celebrity it’s at least a little bit better!” Not only is the message itself ridiculous, but to be told it rather than shown it is somewhat insulting to the viewer. In Blue Jasmine, Ginger’s beater-wearing ex-husband quite literally appears out of nowhere to cuss out Jasmine in front of a new love interest just to say:

“Some people don’t put things behind them so easily! And others do…”

All at once it’s clear to us: Jasmine is struggling to put her past behind her. Duh. And Ginger is struggling with forgiving her sister’s uppity behavior and condescension while trying to assertive set some standards for her love life. And every other character has to decide whether forgiveness is worth the price of sanity or if forgetting the past in favor of a clean slate is preferable. That’s what the whole movie is about! People either get over things or they don’t. Why? Why, Woody Allen?

Despite my high expectations and an absolutely mystical performance from Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine fails in the same way as To Rome With Love did. There are no redeemable characters, the bad far outweighs the good, and in addition to having the take home message be stuffed in the mouth of a tertiary character we don’t even care about, everything is overwhelmingly cynical. It sends the message that young people shouldn’t take life so seriously, that everybody ought to just do whatever they want and cling to whatever meager, self-destructive semblance of happiness they can find. Why do we get this when once upon a time, Midnight in Paris was brimming with romance and hope? Remember when Gertrude Stein said to Gil Pender:

The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.

How can Woody Allen say something like that, only to make two movies like To Rome With Love and Blue Jasmine that essentially send the culminating and unsurprising message that Life Sucks? What’s the point?

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