In accepting an Oscar for best actress that I am not convinced she deserved, Cate Blanchett called attention to Woody Allen as a writer of good parts for women. Sally Hawkins, her costar in “Blue Jasmine” received an Oscar nomination and a number of women (plus Michael Caine) have won Oscars in roles written and directed by Allen (Diane Keaton, Mirra Sorvino, Diane Wiest twice, Penélope Cruz). I would credit Allen for casting good actresses, but wonder how much they run with their parts in contrast to his having written them out.
Ms. Blanchett had played Blanche DuBois on stage and her part as Jasmine/Jeanette seems to me heavily indebted to the role of a delusional aging belle whose husband was not what she had hoped he was and who has killed herself, driving her to take refuge with a sister to whom she condescends for, among other things, her taste in oafish brutes. Bobby Cannavale’s Chili lacks the self-confidence of Marlon Brando’s snarling Stanley Kowalski, but is as onto the visiting sister who would replace him as was Brando. Chili does not rape Jasmine while Stella/Ginger is in the hospital, in part because, unlike Stella, Ginger has already given birth to two sons (who are somewhat like the no-neck monsters in the other greatest Tennessee Williams play, “Caton a Hot Tin Roof”) by a resentful if less brutish husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).
And Jasmine has already undergone shock treatment (what confronted Liz in “Suddenly, Last Summer”) and is not led away at the end by a kindly asylum attendant. She propels herself out of Ginger’s home after Ginger chooses Chili. Alas, Allen does not at all improve on Blanche’s last line: the famous “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
In her glory days (built on sand and willful ignorance on her part), Jasmine depended upon her wheeler-dealer (fraudmaster and philanderer) husband Hal (Alec Baldwin bordering on being typecast). Allen’s movie has abundant flashbacks to the good old days of affluence, though insofar as these are Jasmine’s memories and she is a very unreliable narrator, they are suspect. What we hear her say about her past (to her new beau, Dwight [Peter Sarsgaard] a far more presentable temporarily hoodwinked suitor than Mitch) is all lies. And permit me to say that attractive as Blanchett is, I have difficulty believing a career diplomat who is posted in Vienna (1) would have just bought a Marin County beach house, (2) would be so lacking in guile as to believe what this stately woman tells him, and (3) would not have checked her story/past out before going to buy an engagement ring.
Allen’s screenplay and the performances by Blanchett et al. seem heavily derived from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” transferred to another US city with streetcars, San Francisco. I am pleased that Allen has followed his valentines to Barcelona, Paris, and Rome with one to San Francisco, but there is so much that is off as a portrayal of San Franciscans (patterns of speech and dress in particular) that it makes me wonder if his representations of people in those other cities is similarly defective. I have particular difficulty believing that someone who works in a Mission produce market could afford the apartment (apparently at South Van Ness and 14th street) in which Ginger lives, Chili was about to move into, and which has a vacant bedroom for Jasmine to occupy. Plus some scenes that are supposed to be in San Francisco that are clearly shot in Marin.
Aside from my disbeliefs as a local (looking out across the Mission beyond my computer screen), I have doubts about Allen’s writing (not just the anemic ending) and conventional 1960s reliance on middle-distance tableaux (I am more comfortable with the long shots of people in East and West coast locations, including large parties). Though I like “Blue Jasmine” better than “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome with Love,” I think that Allen is lacking in ideas, visually or aurally, and is not either a writer or director of the first rank. In his mid- (now late-) 70s he does keep cranking out movies that are at least watchable, which to put it in a New York Jewish way is “not nothing.” I’m not sure that if he made fewer movies (than one a year) he would make better ones. He can get good actresses to work for him, in part because there are not that many movies with substantial parts for them. That too, is not nothing… but it’s not enough to justify the continued critical praise (including innumerable claims for “return to top form”) he garners, or the Oscar nomination(s) for best original screenplay. (As for Blanchett’s, if I had a vote it would have gone to Amy Adams in “American Hustle,” though there are still two nominated performances – by Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock – I have yet to see. Moreover, I’m not convinced that Blanchett’s acting was better than that of either Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County.”)