Writing about Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus two weeks ago, I speculated that Sebastian Silva's direction of actors in that film—guiding them through extended improvisations within a tightly organized structure—may owe something to his background as a musician. This thought occurred to me again while watching Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's latest comedy-drama, which opens this week. Allen has long moonlighted as a jazz clarinetist, and he too seems to cast his movies as though preparing jam sessions, bringing together a diverse set of players to see how they'll interact.
It's well-known that Allen offers little instruction to his actors once they're on set, forcing them to rely on their instincts. Some performers thrive in this environment—to date, 15 separate actors have received Oscar nominations for their work in Allen's films—while others flounder. In any case, the method typically results in maddeningly inconsistent characterization, with realistic and cartoonish portrayals often clashing within the same scenes. (Ray Pride once quipped in New City that one of the reliably interesting things about Allen's work is that everyone onscreen seems to be in a different movie.) Thankfully, Blue Jasmine contains one of the strongest casts that Allen has assembled in some time, and the more successful performances manage to enliven some rather tired observations about American class relations.
Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine, the wife of a corrupt investment banker (Alec Baldwin) modeled after Bernie Madoff. When her husband is arrested and she loses her fortune, she moves to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), an earthy blue-collar type who works in a supermarket. Allen intercuts the story of Jasmine's rehabilitation with flashbacks to her former life of luxury, showing how she routinely deluded herself about her husband's criminal behavior and infidelity. The qualities that aided her in high society—composure, self-regard, and a knack for lying through her teeth—prove all but worthless in the working world. The present-day narrative follows her down a second descent, as she ruins her chances at employment, romance, and forming ties with her estranged sister.
Blue Jasmine is bad in ways that Allen's movies have been bad for at least two decades. It's too clearly enamored with well-to-do lifestyles to offer a meaningful critique of them. The psychological insights feel like hand-me-downs from other movies: Hawkins seems to have been cast to inspire memories of her performance in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky; the portrait of upper-class hypocrisy (as in Allen's Match Point) recalls numerous films by Claude Chabrol. Most uncomfortably, Allen seems to have no idea how contemporary working people talk and behave. Ginger's boorish boyfriend—a mechanic named Chili who ends up giving Jasmine a good talking-to—is something of a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from pieces of Stanley Kowalski and the Fonz. The talented Bobby Cannavale seems unsure of whether he should take the part seriously or play it as caricature.
Blanchett, Hawkins, and Baldwin fare much better, imbuing their characters with confidence and charisma without making them sympathetic. Surprisingly, the most revelatory performance comes from Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's ex-husband, another boorish working-class archetype. Best known for his vulgar, misogynistic stand-up routines, Clay first seems out of place in a tony-looking movie like this. One can still hear in his line readings the tough-guy swagger of his comedy act, as well as a poignant struggle to sound sincere. Yet these qualities bring an authenticity to the character that's missing from Cannavale's. Visibly insecure yet determined to hold his own with pros like Blanchett and Baldwin, Clay illustrates more vividly than anything else in Blue Jasmine the divisions separating the haves and the have-nots.