A confession: I have a hard time reviewing Woody Allen movies.
As much as any filmmaker working today—and perhaps as much as any filmmaker who has ever worked—Allen feels like someone I know. I've never met him, of course, and don't expect I ever will, but what director could be more familiar? Beginning with 1966's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, Allen has written and directed 43 feature-length films, at a pace just shy of one a year. I haven't seen every one of Allen's movies, and I haven't liked every one that I have seen, but at this point there is no director whose signature is so easily distinguishable, and no cinema experience more instantly recognizable than sitting in a dark theater as those credits appear, in white-on-black, over some old jazz standard. By this point, even the members of Allen's production team, listed in that trusty Windsor font, feel somehow like old friends.
That kind of familiarity can breed a lot of things: nostalgia, and expectations, and fondness, and fatigue. Yes, it can breed contempt, as we long for a return to the imagined golden years, and perhaps unfairly take for granted genuine charms just because similar charms have charmed us before. But it can also have the opposite effect: to lead us to see greatness and depth where it may not exist, to overlook weaknesses that are as familiar as strengths, to inspire in us a willingness to cede the benefit of the doubt to an old friend.
You see the critics square off for this dance every time a new Woody Allen film opens: half of the reviews are likely to declare the film a "return to form," while the other half are likely to deride it for falling short of whichever period in Allen's oeuvre happens to be each particular critic's favorite. The clarity of true objectivity about any one work of art is almost impossible to obtain with Allen, in a way that is perhaps unique in American cinema. (Critics and audiences might have had different reactions to Martin Scorsese's Hugo, for example, but I don't recall that a lot of reviewers spent time comparing it, favorably or un-, to Raging Bull, or lamenting that they wished Marty would go back to making movies like Mean Streets again.)
My point is, I'm as guilty as the next critic of both wanting Mr. Allen to succeed and judging everything he does against everything else he has done. Will the new movie be as good as the great ones? Will it be better than the bad ones? Nowadays, I still go into every Allen movie hoping for the magic of the films from what I consider his golden age: the remarkable run from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, which includes my own personal favorites like Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives. Though I love some of his earlier and later works, that roughly ten-year period was—to me—when Allen was firing on all cylinders, perfectly and seamlessly melding his comedic and dramatic talents without sacrificing one for the other: those films were very funny and they had insightful things to say about people who seemed very real.
Would I have liked 2011's Midnight in Paris more if it had been the work of a previously unknown director? Perhaps. I would still have thought its characters thin, its screenplay shallow, and its insights disappointingly few. I would still have thought it a harmless flight of fancy, but if I hadn't been comparing it to other, better flights of Allen's fancy—like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway—I might have reacted more favorably to its humor, its whimsy, its audacity of premise. A trifle, I might have said, but I'm very interested in seeing what young Mr. Allen does next.
Alas, he can never again be Young Mr. Allen. I've grown up with Woody Allen's movies, and Woody Allen has grown old making them. Allen will turn 78 this year, and—though he shows no sign of slowing down—it is perhaps unfair to compare his films to those he made 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Watching the people we love grow old means accepting that—even as they may have gotten better in some ways—they can no longer do everything they once did.
One frequent criticism of Allen that is decidedly not fair is the accusation that he makes the same film over and over again: he doesn't. After nearly 50 years as a writer/director, Allen continues to take chances and try different things. His latest film is a more seriously pitched story than we've seen from Allen in several years: though it contains some intrinsically funny situations, and though the dialogue often snaps with his trademark synthesis of erudition and neurosis, Blue Jasmine is not a comedy. Rather, it is a surprisingly intimate character study of a woman at a moment of crisis.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, in a taut, dazzling performance) is the widow of Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Madoff-esque billionaire whose grotesque wealth turned out to have been teetering precariously atop a pyramid (scheme) of lies. As the film opens, the government has seized all of Hal's assets; Hal (who appears throughout the film in flashbacks) has committed suicide in prison; and Jasmine has been left homeless and living out of her Louis Vuitton luggage. Already, we learn, she's been forced to live in Brooklyn—indignity of indignities—and now she's lost even that apartment, and must relocate to San Francisco to rely on the kindness of her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, excellent here). The two sisters are not close, and could not be more different, but Ginger welcomes Jasmine into her small apartment over the objections of ex-husband Augie (a surprisingly effective Andrew Dice Clay), who hates Jasmine, and new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who quickly learns to.
Those of us who missed Blanchett's performance in Liv Ullmann's 2009 Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire get a taste of how good it must have been here, for Jasmine is a Blanche DuBois for the age of financial-scandals and 1-percenters, and Blue Jasmine stands deliberately—if not always flatteringly—in the long shadow of Tennessee William's masterpiece. And Blanchett's performance here is the chief pleasure to be found in the film. Jasmine is a creature whose entire life and identity are built on illusions—born "Jeanette," even her name is a self-invention—and she clings to her illusions (with the help of a lot of vodka and Xanax) even as she crashes headfirst into what anyone else would perceive as reality. The movie jumps back and forth between what her life was like before and what it is now, but we quickly understand that Jasmine has always been the same person: self-delusional, entitled, clueless, and living entirely on the surface of things. The only difference is, before Hal's fall she had the indestructible mooring of money, and now she is completely untethered.
In a lesser actress's hands, Jasmine would be a more problematic creation: there is something mean-spirited in Allen's construction of this woman, and he too often seems to be judging her harshly even as he shares in her snobbery. (A major fault with the film is that it sees the lower-class people Jasmine encounters in much the same way that she does: as simple, loutish creatures of simple, loutish pleasures.) But the cruel stereotype Jasmine might have been on the page blossoms into an actual person in Blanchett's hands, and the collaboration here between the director and his lead actress becomes one of the most fruitful and rewarding ones in Allen's career. Blanchett commits fully to this woman's precarious grip on both sanity and optimism, and even as we laugh at her entitlement and self-obsession we can't help but respond sympathetically to the underlying terror that drives it. Blanchett makes us understand that Jasmine's painful, comic lack of self-awareness is a defense mechanism: she's nervously walking a thin tightrope over the chasm of her own lack of character, and the only way she can keep moving is to not look down. The Oscars have been kind to Woody Allen's supporting actresses—with nine nominations and four wins—but Blanchett may very well be Allen's first Best Actress winner since Diane Keaton won for Annie Hall in 1977.
At the same time, however, I can't help but wish Blue Jasmine did not rely quite so heavily on this extraordinary performance. I said earlier that we cannot—and perhaps should not—expect Allen to do everything he once did: he still has a gift for casting, and he is still as good a director as he has ever been, but it's in the writing that late-period Woody too often lets us down, rarely bothering to dig deep enough to turn types into characters, and too often failing to develop ideas into rich and provocative themes. Absent the depth Blanchett brings to her character through her performance, Blue Jasmine is ultimately a thin and shallow movie. Class has never been Woody's best subject—though there are people who like 2005's Match Point more than I do—and here he awkwardly straddles the class divide by standing no more than ankle-deep in both ends. Whether we're watching pre-fall Jasmine moving in high-society, or post-fall Jasmine being set up on a cringe-worthy blind date with one of Chili's friends, we never feel like Allen really understands these people or has anything insightful to say about them: rich and poor alike seem like caricatures, not characters. Allen establishes some rich emotional tension in the characters—and especially between the two adopted sisters—but never quite manages to pay it off except in superficial ways.
The entire cast—which also includes Peter Sarsgaard and Louis C.K. as gentleman callers for Jasmine and Ginger—struggles nobly to bring underwritten characters to life, with some success, but everyone is rising above the material itself. (Cannavale, though a charming actor, is probably most victimized by the surface-level screenplay, which strips his Stanley-Kowalski-esque character of any genuinely interesting qualities.) The satisfying treatment of a full ensemble of characters that we got in films like Hannah and Her Sisters is not to be found here, as everyone but Jasmine feels too much like a stock, background figure.
In the end, Blue Jasmine left me feeling both encouraged and disappointed. It is a more ambitious and worthy entry in Allen's catalog than too many of his 21st century films, and Blanchett's performance alone is more than worth the price of the ticket. At the same time, however, I still can't help it: I still long to see this kind of movie undertaken with the kind of care and depth we would have gotten from late-80s, early-90s Woody. We would have to sacrifice the performance by Blanchett—though I'm confident Judy Davis would have played this role admirably—but we might have been rewarded with a screenplay that did better by the talented ensemble of supporting actors, and one that mined the considerable emotional veins of the ideas here to their full comic and dramatic potential.
As it stands, Blue Jasmine might have been better conceived as—and is best viewed as—an extraordinary one-woman show performed before thin backdrops on a sparsely decorated stage. But it's just good enough that I'm still looking forward to seeing what Young Mr. Allen does next.