The Rich Are Different From You and Me
Above, Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin in a scene from Blue Jasmine before their rich lifestyle collapsed.
Left, Blanchett joins her sister and her working class friends in what is for her an unhappy outing.
There’s a scene halfway through Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine, which might also be subtitled Fear and Loathing in San Francisco, that illustrates what an empty exercise this movie is, despite the three Oscar nominations and the largely respectful critical reception.
Cate Blanchett, who has been nominated for Best Actress, plays Jasmine, a Manhattan socialite who arrives in San Francisco to stay with her less well-to-do sister Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Allen earned the movie’s third nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
On the surface, Jasmine looks like a million bucks worth of Madison Avenue coiffures and facials, Paris couture, Italian leather and chic, understated Tiffany jewelry: a catalog of affluence.
Underneath, she is a roiling whirlpool of anxiety, insecurity and depression brought on by the fact that her husband Hal, based on Ponzi scheme malefactor Bernie Madoff, was sent to jail for massive fraud, where he killed himself. Now a widow and broke, Jasmine descends on Ginger because she has nowhere else to go.
Jasmine is impossible in every way, haughty and demanding, and Ginger puts up with her as best she can, although Ginger’s fiancee Chili isn’t as patient. Then Jasmine meets Dwight, a handsome widower (played by Peter Sarsgaard) who works for the Foreign Service, but wants to enter politics. She pretends to be an interior designer, and he, seeing only her cool, golden beauty and sophistication, ticks off her desirable attributes as if checking the boxes on a survey. He wants to hire her to decorate a home he’s recently bought next to San Francisco Bay, an enormous modern space tailor-made for a Silicon Valley billionaire.
Together they stand on a deck overlooking the water, cuddling and murmuring sweet nothings about real estate and decorating and a future together. There’s no chemistry between the two characters, no palpable desire, and it’s unclear what we’re supposed to make of the scene. Why is their conversation so dull and predictable? Are they so accustomed to material wealth that they can only meet at that level? Where does a Foreign Service employee relatively low on the ladder find the money to buy such a palace? Family income? There’s no explanation, and so the scene, like many others in the movie, seems as phony as a $3 bill, the product of a man who, for years, has confined himself largely to the rambling apartments of Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, and their Paris, London and Rome equivalents. That would be fine — it’s Allen’s milieu, and plenty of other directors have made hay with revisiting the same territory — if he had actually used his imagination, and summoned whatever empathy he could, to give us a woman devastated by the barren landscape she sees around her, one bereft of love, family, financial security and domestic stability.
Into that landscape he might also have painted a psychologically complex portrait of two sisters often at odds but bound together, not by blood because they are both adopted, but by the painful exigencies of circumstance. Instead we have mean-spirited, snobbish Jasmine, and warm-hearted but dopey Ginger, too easily swayed by the opinions of those around her.
Here Allen borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, using Blanchett as a Blanche DuBois surrogate, who is dependent on the kindness of strangers while recoiling from them at the same time. Ginger is Stella. And Ginger’s fiancee Chili is, of course, Stanley Kowalski.
Allen’s problem is that Jasmine and Ginger are caricatures, given life only by the women playing them, not by his vision of them as full-blooded, complex women. You can feel Allen’s contempt for Jasmine emanating from the situations in which he puts her, and the words he gives her to say. She’s a superficial narcissist who’s never done a hard day’s work in her life, but she’s also just one step away from the psychiatric ward, popping pills and muttering to herself.
No one says that all women are saintly or that they must be portrayed sympathetically at all times. And Blanchett manages to make Jasmine a painful, compelling bundle of contradictions. But Allen has made Jasmine symbolic of all the wretched excesses and self-indulgence of the 1 percent, and the people who brought down the American economy in 2008, and that’s too large a burden for one character to bear. Jasmine is a metaphor, not a person.
So Allen punishes her: for her sins, for the sins of her husband, and the transgressions and pretensions of the nouveau riche, rather than looking at her with the kind of clear-eyed but sympathetic dispassion that such directors as Francois Truffaut, Max Ophuls or Douglas Sirk, the dean of 1950s Hollywood “women’s pictures,” mastered.
You don’t even have to look back that far to see how this is done. Watch one of my favorite movies of 2013, Enough Said, directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener, to see women who are neither idealized nor vilified. They’re human, with both virtues and foibles on display, and they feel real. They’re not always lovable but they’re recognizable, and they made me laugh — not at them, but with them.
Blanchett is a nervy actress giving a nervy performance, as if she were running across a high wire in four-inch heels. In her mannerisms and intelligence in this film she’s reminiscent of the younger Katharine Hepburn, who could be charming and abrasive, intellectual and obtuse in the same moment. (Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress award in 2004 for playing Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.) Hawkins has a few good moments as a woman whose faith in people is continually disappointed, but it’s not enough to compensate for Allen’s cynicism.
Jasmine isn’t the only person to feel the sting of Allen’s increasingly narrow, sour world view. Into the mix Allen introduces his idea of the working class. There’s Chili, a soft-hearted but loud-mouthed Italian-American lout, played by stage actor Bobby Cannavale. And there’s Chili’s gauche friend Eddie, also Italian-American, who wants to ask Jasmine out on a date, a request which she clearly regards as not just ludicrous but repulsive.
The problem is, you get the distinct feeling Allen feels the same way, even if he’s stacking the deck against Jasmine by making her distaste so overt. At the very least, Allen is comfortable condescending to them. It’s as if Allen hasn’t left 1950s New York and is still watching movies like Marty, with Ernest Borgnine playing the dopey Italian Bronx butcher, or had recorded one too many episodes of MTV’s Jersey Shore.
No one in the movie escapes. Jasmine’s boss, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a dentist who takes a chance and hires her to be a receptionist. He turns out to be that most resolute of cliches, a nebbishy dentist who can’t keep his hands to himself. Jasmine’s husband Hal, played by Alec Baldwin, is a slick, characterless philanderer.
The one character who shows some humanity is Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, a restrained Andrew Dice Clay, doing a sympathetic turn that’s far removed from his 1980s bad boy, foul-mouthed antics. But he’s there in the end only to puncture Jasmine’s delusions when he runs into her as she shops for an engagement ring with Dwight.
By the end of the movie I was thoroughly disheartened and depressed. Jasmine ends up sitting on a bench, talking to herself, homeless and friendless. Rather than feeling pity for her, Allen seems to suggest that she deserves her fate, that she’s brought it on herself. Of course, we’re responsible for our own lives and behavior, and Jasmine is hard to like, but Allen is so merciless in his scrutiny that he risks being accused of misogyny. Or maybe misanthropy is the better term. The charm and warmth of Annie Hall are long gone, and what’s replaced them is a calculated cynicism that’s hard to watch.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org