Woody Allen: He’s Still Good

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When Cate Blanchett walks up to the podium to accept her Best Actress accolades next spring for her stunning performance in Blue Jasmine (and she most certainly will be winning them all, from Golden Globe to Oscar), she will be sharing the award with the ghost of a white Chanel jacket tastefully trimmed in black. That jacket says more about her character, Jasmine Francis, than any piece of costume since Superman's cape. It is Jasmine’s connection with the world she once inhabited, and she wears the expensive jacket casually, as you or I might toss a windbreaker over our shoulders.

Jasmine Francis is a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown; she has already gone over the edge, and is desperately trying to hang on. She not only lives in the past, she talks to people in her past, rehashing old conversations right out loud, while standing on the sidewalk or sitting at a party. We see this as flashbacks triggered by key words or images that remind her of her old life. Through this process we see the juxtaposition of Jasmine’s old life as a glamorous socialite and wife of a multibillionaire, and her new life as the poverty-stricken widow forced to live with her sister, a spunky San Francisco grocery clerk.

The story is a thinly veiled roman à clef that imagines the post-scandal life of Bernie Madoff's wife, Ruth. Madoff, of course, was the investment banker who swindled $65 billion from friends, relatives, and charitable organizations in the largest financial fraud in history. After the Ponzi scheme came to light, Ruth Madoff complained that she couldn't go anywhere without being vilified. Shunned by her former friends, she couldn't go to her gym, her favorite restaurants, or even shopping because everyone stared at her and made disparaging remarks. Well duh! It's one thing for a legitimate money manager to misjudge the markets and suffer losses once in a while. But Madoff never even tried to be a wise money manager for his clients. He just kept raking in the dough and spending it on yachts and homes and cars, while sending out phony statements to keep his clients happy. How could anyone feel anything but contempt for such shysters?

Like Ruth Madoff, Jasmine goes to live with a sister. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) lives in a tiny, frowsy San Francisco apartment with her two young sons. Ginger's marriage has also collapsed, partly because Jasmine's husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had convinced her and her husband to invest their $200,000 lottery prize in his "real estate fund" instead of supporting their goal to start a business of their own. Of course, there was no investment fund; Hal had been funneling everyone's money into his own personal accounts. The big question is: how much did Jasmine know? An even bigger question: how can a person deliberately defraud a family member or friend? Simply shocking.

Jasmine is tasteful and smart and elegant, but she has absolutely no idea how to exist in the real world. She has no income and virtually no money, yet she gives her taxi driver a $100 tip and flies across country first class because she cannot imagine any other way to act. (When Ginger asks, "How did you pay for a first class ticket?" Jasmine responds with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I don't know. I just did.")

Popping Xanax like breath mints and washing it down with Stoli vodka, Jasmine lives in a daze of denial. She knows she has to reinvent and redefine herself, but she can't let go of the past that was so comfortable, nor can she come to terms with how it all happened. Meanwhile Ginger and her friends try in vain to welcome Jasmine into their world of pizza, beer, and cheap dates. The disconnection provides for many comic moments, but the undercurrent of tragedy is always present.

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood. He has been making films for nearly half a century, but (in my opinion) he has done his best work in the past decade, at an age when other people are retired and chasing golf balls. Last year's Midnight in Paris, about a frustrated writer who mysteriously finds himself hobnobbing with the likes of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds in 1920s Paris, was brilliant. So is Blue Jasmine. It is one of Allen's finest films. The story is at once contemporary and timeless and true. Cate Blanchett gives an utterly fearless and totally vulnerable performance as Jasmine, and the rest of the cast rise to her level of abandon, forgetting themselves in the characters. And kudos to Suzy Benzinger as costume designer . . . I hope that Chanel jacket shows up at the Oscars.


Editor's Note: Review of "Blue Jasmine," written and directed by Woody Allen. Perdido Productions, 2013, 98 minutes.



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Comments

Jon Harrison

Woody Allen is so passe. He means nothing to most people under 40. He peaked in the 1970s. He's almost 80 years old, for God's sake. Today he's most popular in southern Europe, hardly a cutting-edge region in cultural or any other terms.

Jo Ann

Woody Allen may have peaked in the 70s, but he has returned in the past decade with a completely new kind of storytelling as he moved outside of his New York chauvinism to explore characters and situations in other settings. I much prefer his later work. And frankly, it doesn't matter whether anyone under 40 knows his name; Blue Jasmine is a brilliant piece of work, largely because of Allen's remarkable talent for directing his entire cast.

Johnimo

Amen, Jo Ann. There are many, many great things in this world that are "so passe." Film cameras come to mind and I refuse to part with them.

Jon Harrison

It all depends on your perspective, I guess. To me it does matter what people under 40 think. They'll be running the world soon, after all. And to a large degree they already determine the cultural coinage of our time.

Jo Ann

Oh Jon! Sometimes I can't figure out where you're coming from. If it doesn't matter to you what people under 40 think, then why was that the lead in your original comment? Sometimes I think you argue just for the sake of arguing... But that's okay--I kind of like it too!
By the way--many of my friends and all of my children are under 40,and ALL of them know who Woody Allen is. And they LOVED Blue Jasmine.

Lori Heine

I know a fair number of people under 40. In my experience, educated, hip and cultured young people know and appreciate Woody Allen's work -- his latest especially. Those who don't are generally the sort who spend their time watching reality TV and following the exploits of the Kardashians.

There was a period when every woman I dated felt obliged to hate Woody because of "what he did to Mia." As if they were intimate with the inside story and had to be good feminists by passing the correct judgment. Fortunately, Woody's image has survived that. I believe that's largely because he is, again, producing great work.

Jon Harrison

I will only say that I don't know people who watch reality TV or follow the Kardashians. . . .

Jon Harrison

Huh? Didn't I say in both comments that it does matter what people under 40 think? That's certainly what I meant to say.

I try not to argue just for the sake of arguing. But in any case I do like the light-hearted manner in which you respond.

As far as Woody A. is concerned, I happen to feel that he's a very old relic of what's left of the modernist imperative. If one gets out of New York and L.A., I find he's generally disregarded or unknown (not literally unknown, but just a name).

Jonathan B. Howard

What is the artist's reputation among the mass of younger people--there's an aesthetic standard for you!

Jon Harrison

Are you implying that Woody A. is on the elite level of thinkers/creators? I would say he's a popular entertainer. And while Woody may be quite beloved by an the older generation, we will be dying off (admittedly, he'll be gone before most of us) while the under-40s take over.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that Woody A. is just a fairly talented entertainer who started as a comedian and then took up serious movie making. His work is, conciously or unconciously, modernist in outlook. Modernism has been in decline since the 1960s, and it represents the last significant cultural-intellectual movement in Western culture. Western culture is dying and Woody's work is just part of the effluvia a dying culture creates.

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