I understand men and women in their sixties whose nostalgia for the era of good Woody Allen films brings them again and again to theaters. So many loud action movies! Where’d that nice Michelle Pfeiffer go? Woody’s films are short and tasteful — they get Academy Award nominations! These fans long swallowed Allen’s expert PR: even in the eighties ascetic work habits mitigated the horror of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and September; we were supposed to respect his prolificity. In the nineties this line got repeated with more vehemence after he married his quasi-stepdaughter and the pace showed no signs of slackening.
It’s 2013, though, and I can’t explain why younger audiences treat Allen with a reverence he doesn’t deserve. Midnight in Paris and Match Point were junk, marketed with shrewdness, distinguished from Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, and To Rome and Back by their box office and Oscar nominations. Calling The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Small Time Crooks underrated gets you nowhere. Every film is underrated. Anyway, “underrated” and “overrated” are as meaningless as “unique.” The college-aged crowd with whom I saw Blue Jasmine, his latest “best since __________,” didn’t watch Sleeper, Love and Death in their first run. They missed Annie Hall and Manhattan. They weren’t alive during The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the other movies that constitute his eighties heyday — a period when The New York Times ran Sunday “think-pieces” by Vincent Canby on the existential mysteries of C&D. Hell, they were too young for Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Deconstructing Harry, his last three good films. So why do they want to believe in Woody Allen? What is he to them? They owe him nothing. Yesterday a friend defended Torn Curtain and Frenzy. He’s welcome to. I think they’re grisly examples of deteriorating talent: they show a collapse in tonal control, pacing, and hiding his disdain for acting, but because ALFRED HITCHCOCK directed them they deserve a third look (auteurism still rules). Allen’s story since the nineties shows a similar deterioration. He’s not a genius. He doesn’t deserve a third look. He’s closer to Michael Curtiz than a Bunuel or Ozu: he makes product because he must, because to stop is to die.
Blue Jasmine boasts a conceit of impressive audacity: if you’re a woman and poor, it sucks if you don’t have a man; if you’re a woman and rich, it sucks if you don’t have a man; if you’re a woman who was once rich and is now poor, it sucks if you don’t have a man. Income inequality and the collapse of a system in which the working poor can pay the rent gets leveled by the film’s retrograde gender politics. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine moves in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Manhattan businessman who defrauds millions from customers, kills himself in jail. Resentments linger: Hal defrauded Ginger and ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) out of two hundred thousand in lottery money. Ginger’s new boyfriend named — are you ready for this?– Chili (Bobby Canavale) isn’t impressed by Jasmine’s airs; he thinks she’s a phony.
Allen used A Streetcar Named Desire as inspiration but forgot that transposing the material to the present doesn’t work because in 2013 women act differently and have expectations they didn’t in 1947. Besides, Blanche wasn’t a woman (she was a gay man turned into a woman). Jasmine isn’t either. Playing the sort of movie loony bird who massages a temple with trembling fingers when she feels a spell comin’ on and pops pills with the other hand, Cate Blanchett uses her considerable technique to create a character out of tics. It’s reprise of Geraldine Page’s fluttering hands in Interiors with a dash of Judy Davis’ stentorian tones in Husbands and Wives. All of Allen’s strong female characters are crazy. At times she plays Jasmine as if she were Blanche; shooting her in closeup has the effect of sitting too near the stage. She looks terrific in her chic well-cut Dior pantsuits though. Blue Jasmine doesn’t recover from its intellectual and social isolation. To carve a modish identity as an interior decorator, Jasmine takes — get this — computer lessons. In 2013. I repeat: Cate Blanchett looks beautiful; she can pass for a woman in her late thirties. Allen would have us believe that a thirtysomething woman who once lived in Southampton and bedded with a Bernie Madoff type doesn’t know “how to use” the computer. What does this mean? Turn it on and click on a browser. The affable Peter Sarsgaard appears as a diplomat or career State Department employee (the specificity of jobs is beneath Allen’s contempt) who — seriously — wants to try his hand at politics, so he buys an impressive mansion on the Bay. Even in California his electoral chances are slim. Hawkins is stuck playing the hosfrau with awful hair who makes bad choices about low-class men. Louis C.K. is a fantastic comedian. Did you know he was in Blue Jasmine? I forgive you if you didn’t. Cannavale says dese and dose a lot and struggles with a long bang the likes of which I haven’t seen since The Birdcage. Allen writes Alec Baldwin no lines to which Baldwin can apply lemon juice. More examples, in other words, of this man casting actors and having no clue what to do with them. It looks like Sam Shepard was right: Allen understands zip about acting.
By the time Allen made Husbands and Wives he had become an economical builder of scenes who understood how long they should run. In Blue Jasmine he reverts to a TV ethos: closeup of actor jabbering, reaction shot, closeup. The lingering shots of the bay and of plush Upper East Side sitting rooms are examples of the pornography of opulence, which sets up the audience to accept Jasmine’s devaluation of Ginger’s apartment. For a woman who works as a cashier in a local grocery it’s impressive; I can imagine the characters in the Tales of the City series living in it. An apt response. The mausoleum called Blue Jasmine commemorates wealth we’ll never spend, houses we’ll never live in, insanity we’ll never experience, hair we’ll never grow, and Woody Allen movies he won’t make again.