Blue Jasmine. Funny? Or what?

October 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m not a Woody Allen fan, though I’ve seen quite a number of his films since the 1970s, enough to have forgotten a few, and some that I’ve enjoyed. With only two exceptions I can think of, the enjoyment has always been marred by a sense of being shortchanged. First the two exceptions: a ‘serious’ Woody Allen film, Another Woman, whose moral reflections convince because of a performance by the wonderful Gena Rowlands, along with the presence of Gene Hackman; and a ‘funny’ Woody Allen film, Small-Time Crooks, packed with gags and laugh-worthy silliness. It’s good to watch films that really make us laugh.

Buster Keaton, Howard Hawks, Mario Monicelli, Elaine May, Ernst Lubitsch – all consummate filmmakers able to provoke great laughter; Woody Allen can be amusing, but I wouldn’t rank him alongside them. His humour, when he’s the star, relies too much on a look-at-me insecurity, and a little of it goes a long way. From what I remember of his early films, they’re essentially extended stand-up routines. In his later films, the insecurity is less that of the little guy on the outside, and more the permanent neurosis harboured by some successful alter ego of Allen himself. Subversive it is not.

Blue Jasmine’s star, Cate Blanchett, is being tipped as an Oscar nominee for her role as the former wealthy socialite reduced to homelessness and breakdown by her disgraced husband’s crooked financial dealings. By the time we see her move in with divorced sister Ginger, a mother of two working at a supermarket checkout, Jasmine has undergone electroshock therapy and survives on high doses of vodka and tranquillisers. Blanchett is impressive as a soul destroyed, a shallow, self-absorbed woman who nonetheless emerges as a figure of pathos. But what is she doing here, pale, willowy and tragic, transposed from one of those ‘serious’ Allen films inhabited by well-heeled New York sophisticates into the world of the dwarfish working-class, all of them dark going on swarthy, their manners uncouth, their clothes and interior decor lacking in style? Well, therein lies the comedy: in the situation itself, in the comic nature of the lower orders.

Jasmine is all about having (status, domestic grandeur, jewellery, designer everything) and she doesn’t know how to be, yet against her elegant distress the working-class have-nots appear witless and cartoonish at every turn, in a way that is cruel rather than funny (even Ginger’s dim, potato-faced sons serve this purpose, foils to a drunken babysitting Jasmine in a scene that raises uneasy laughs). Playing the naive but kind-hearted Ginger, Sally Hawkins fares better than the rest, but as though she has strayed in from a Mike Leigh film set. This, however, is a comedy where the embarrassment shades into dread, its clash of genres conspiring to make Jasmine’s comeuppance all the more punitive.

There’s only one moment, late in the film, that undercuts Allen’s abysmal rendering of class difference. In a street confrontation with Jasmine, Ginger’s ex-husband gives an angry speech that puts them on an equal dramatic footing, and that fingers her guilt (by association with her husband’s ruthless greed) in the ruining of his own life. There’s not a whiff of comedy in their exchange.

What if Allen had thought to make a really serious film with this material?

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