When you think back on the great Woody Allen films, they have so many different dimensions. They are dramatic (Crimes and Misdemeanors), they are hilarious (Bananas), they are touching (The Purple Rose of Cairo), they are dramatic and hilarious and touching (Manhattan), they are sublimely bittersweet romantic (Annie Hall), they are drop-dead clever (Zelig), they are darkly sexy and thrilling (Match Point), they are even cheerfully up front about their own lack of consequence (Broadway Danny Rose). But a word that virtually never springs to mind in connection with a Woody Allen film is ”topical.” On rare occasions, he has tried to be topical, and the results haven’t usually worked out too well (e.g., his toothless satire of the new gossip culture in Celebrity, or every time he makes a reference to rock & roll). That’s not to say that all of Allen’s movies are unconnected to their time. One of the things I cherish about Manhattan is the way that it pinpoints New York in its transitional end-of-the-’70s moment, when professors were becoming yuppies, love and art were finding a rival in real estate, and comedy was turning into an assembly-line commodity. Manhattan is great time-capsule material, but it’s not exactly ripped from the headlines.
Blue Jasmine, on the other hand, sort of is, even though it’s one of Woody’s deepest and most searching movies. Starting today, Sony Pictures Classics is opening Blue Jasmine on 1,200 screens, and that’s wider than any Woody Allen movie has ever played. Clearly, they are banking on a big success, and there’s every reason to think they’ll get it. Woody Allen is now in the middle of his own late-period renaissance: He’s 77 years old, yet he doesn’t make “old man’s movies” – his filmmaking is spry and antic and quick-drawn, even if, like me, you found the cheeky travelogue fables Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love a little on the lite side. Midnight in Paris has been his biggest hit to date, and the rapidly gathering expectation is that Blue Jasmine, powered by Cate Blanchett’s funny, lyrical, and altogether staggering performance as a 21st-century Blanche DuBois, will surpass it. I’m happy to salute Allen in the agelessness of his success, but I’m also tickled by the poetic rightness of Blue Jasmine reaching out to such a vast audience. Because the key to the movie’s tragicomic power is how profoundly it plugs into the life-without-a-net money madness of our time.
You probably think I’m referring to the fact that the Alec Baldwin character, a charming-heel swindler tycoon named Hal, is an obvious gloss on Bernie Madoff. He’s married to Blanchett’s Jasmine (or, at least, he is in the half of the film that consists of flashbacks to their life of gilded leisure), and Jasmine, the society wife who’s so busy enjoying the fruits of her husband’s chicanery that she compels herself to look the other way, is the film’s version of the wife of any swindler, about whom we always wonder: How much did she know? Could she truly have been that blind? (In Blue Jasmine, just when we’re sure the answer is “Yes, she could have been,” a key twist reveals that the answer is: “Maybe not.”) A Madoff character, a Madoff situation, certainly qualifies Blue Jasmine as “topical,” yet not in any particularly brilliant or special way. The true, rich, and haunting topicality of the movie lies in what happens to Jasmine after she’s exiled from her garden of wealth. That’s where the film begins to touch the raw nerve of what’s happening in our society.
For, of course, how many of us can actually relate to the situation of being married to a Bernie Madoff? That’s one in a zillion. But what happens to Jasmine expresses a much more common – and devastating – reality about the America of 2013. In her life with Hal, she not only has a lot of money. She has a place, a position, an identity. That is who she is. When she suddenly loses her money, she has lost the fulcrum of her identity, her role as the smiling, tasteful beauty who swans through parties and always knows just what to say. If she’s not that person, then who is she? Jasmine, in fact, has no idea. And that is something that has become a disturbingly common how did I get here? experience in our society. The good corporate citizen who is tossed out of his career and is suddenly desperate to land a job that nets him one-fifth of what he made before. The assembly-line worker who got laid off three years ago and has stopped even looking for work. The financial burden is unfathomable, but so, in its way, is the spiritual stress. You are no longer who you were. And it’s the confrontation with – or, more accurately, the refusal to confront – that harsh reality that begins to make Jasmine lose her mind.
She’d been living a grand illusion in the first place, and now she has no other illusions with which to paper over the void of who she is. And so she falls apart. Of course, Jasmine’s special tragedy is that, like Blanche DuBois, she’s a woman of beauty and refinement and “airs” who refuses to “lower” herself to be something she thinks she’s not. Does that make her a snob? Absolutely. Yet snobbery in the movies is almost too easily mocked (those who respond most to snob-baiting humor are usually snobs themselves), and the scenes where Jasmine goes to work as the office assistant of a dentist are terrifying, because through the twitchy brilliance of Blanchett’s acting, we see not just the snobbery of Jasmine but the way that there’s something in her central nervous system that rejects the paper-shuffling routineness of the job. She can’t do it…because it truly isn’t her. She’d rather go crazy. And that’s where the movie, wedding the soul of Blanche DuBois to the psychology of an economically desperate time, makes its most audacious statement: that Jasmine’s slow-motion mental breakdown is an expression of something deep inside her – not just her genetic coding but her stubbornly idealistic will, her inability to be anyone other than her dream of who she longs to be. In Blue Jasmine, to see that dream shatter into a thousand fragments, and Jasmine’s life along with it, isn’t just to watch another Woody Allen movie. It’s to look at our society in Woody Allen’s mirror. And to say: There but for the grace of God go I.