the better truth

the better truth

Monday, September 02, 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Woody Allen, Working Man

Woody Allen has written and directed a feature film every year since 1977 and he is on schedule to complete another project in 2014. This is AFTER a two decades of establishing himself as a stand up comic and show business writer.  It is astounding that the super-star auteur writer/director of my youth in the 1970s would still  be producing work. What is even more extraordinary is his latest films have been commercially and critically the most successful of his career. “Midnight in Paris”, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “Match Point” were all made in the last decade and have certainly equaled or excelled the inflation adjusted box office for such Allen classics as:  “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” and “Hannah and her Sisters”.  The word ‘genius’, which was commonly associated with Mr. Allen in his prime, has once again been resurrected. Proof is in the pudding - the latest feature “Blue Jasmine” - has the premiere performers of the moment lining up to work for scale on this project: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin,  Louie C.K have all joined to have their names appear in alphabetical order in Woody’s trademark Windsor-EF-Elongated font with soft jazz music playing in the background. Decade after decade, serious talent wants to join the club.  Mr. Allen deserves high praise for his business acumen in creating an American art-house brand.  He has a kindred spirit in another Bronx born entrepreneur. Those people on the upper east side of Manhattan might not take notice of Ralph Lipschitz and Allan Konigsberg ... but they proudly wear Ralph Lauren and would do anything to be in a Woody Allen movie. Let the naysayers carp about Lauren’s lack of originality or Allen’s unevenness as a writer/director.  These men view the world through the eyes of their immigrant families and have a different ‘bottom line’. Ralph Lauren classic car collection has been featured in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Woody Allen used to park his chauffeur driven cream-colored Rolls Royce in front of Elaine’s restaurant. What kind of cars do the critics’ drive?

“Blue Jasmine” is about the familial devastation wrought by a con-man; who has affairs and simultaneously destroys the financial stability of his friends, family and business associates.  The cruel aftermath of marital deception coupled with heinous crimes has been visited by Mr. Allen on a few occasions. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” has a doctor killing his lover to safeguard his marriage. “Matchpoint” reprises this scenario.  In both cases the men remain relatively unscathed by their treachery. “Blue Jasmine” has a far bleaker outcome.  In this case, however, it is told from the woman’s POV.  The wrongdoer faces justice but the spouse seems to suffer a worse fate. Ironically ‘loyalty’ trumps dishonesty. In other words the despicable actions of the Bernard Madoff trickster, played effectively by Alec Baldwin, seem less of a problem then Cate Blanchett’s failure to stand by her man. Her performance is outstanding.  She brings a heartfelt depth to the character which should be attributed to her gifts as a performer; rather than Allen’s work as a writer/director. She created a silk purse from a ponderous, narcissistic cow’s ear full of  dialogue.  One of the challenge's in Allen’s films is a lack of gravitas.  This is understandable in that his roots are in slap-stick comedy rather than drama.  Allen in at his best in mad-cap social satire: “Play it Again Sam”, “Sleeper”, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex”.  His work takes on an unappealing sophomoric angst when he wades into the deeper end of the pool: “Interiors”, “Husband and Wives”, “Stardust Memories”... Unfortunately he is most personally revealing in these moments. “Husband and Wives” was shot while he was still married to his co-star Mia Farrow. Unfortunately it was released during the tumultuous divorce where it was revealed he had left his wife for his step daughter. The Allen character in the film ends up embracing a bachelor life. He feels he has hurt enough people with his failed attempts at intimacy. In real life Allen married his step-daughter permanently estranging himself from Farrow and their biological child. “Stardust Memories”, which Allen considers his best work, features a filmmaker who laments that fans prefer his “earlier, funnier movies”.  Perhaps it is because the protagonists, who bear a striking resemblance to their creator, fail to be sympathetic.  The lovable onscreen persona Allen delivers in his early work, a nebbish, overly-intellectual, clumsy, insecure mensch/shlemiel, gives way to something closer to Sammy Glick - the rags to riches sociopath in Bud Shulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run”.  The ‘real-life’ Allen is a multi-lingual former high school athletic star who, in addition to being a playwright and best selling author, is a professional musician. He was out-earning his parents in his early teens writing comedy.  There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and talented but the tenor of his work betrays a meanness. There are no real good guys in Woody Allen films... just head cases, villains and scores of set-piece clowns.  The drift away from ‘slapstick’ has brought his dour world-view into sharper focus. The characters are fleeting in their griefs and triumphs. One always remembers the ‘gags’ or one-liners in Allen films... but never the characters - save the ever-changing Mr. Allen himself. Now that he has retired from onscreen appearances his work has become a pastiche of well-known performers acting out clever set-piece dramas. Nothing wrong with that... we all enjoy parking our brains at the door while we much away on the popcorn.... but it would be wise to raise our ‘genius’ bar for the real McCoy. 

“Blue Jasmine” is a callow view of contemporary class friction.  Ironically Allen, who knows both worlds intimately, fails to deliver. There is a forced quality to his portraits which hints that he stopped noticing people, blue or white collar, decades ago. The stilted exposition combined with laughable plot points renders the whole enterprise stillborn.  Allen, who studied under famed writing teacher Lajos Egri, might want to dust off a copy of his “The Art of Dramatic Writing”... specifically the section addressing ‘coincidences’. Are we really supposed to believe that the protagonist runs into her nemesis at the exact moment her lover is purchasing an engagement ring? And to add insult to injury: the clever fiancee, who is an upperclass worldly diplomat, never performed a basic google-search of the new love of his life?  And to add insult to injury squared - the nemesis reveals a long lost relative who is a short commute from where she is standing? There are two simple words for this: bad writing.   Once again the craft and talent give the veneer of quality.   The references, accents and accoutrements are all spot on... but the center does not hold.   It is interesting to contrast “Blue Jasmine” with the television season of “Damages” which re-creates the Madoff mayhem.  Glenn Close’s portrayal of an ambitious prosector is an interesting parallel to Cate Blachett. These women are first rate actresses at the top of their game and deliver unforgettable performances. The difference is that Close’s work integrates with the overall storyline and has meaningful impact on one’s views of Madoff’s real-life actions.  Blachett merely gives an unforgettable performance. Once again it is worth twice the price of admission to see her tackle this part - but it has nothing to do with the high stakes morality of conning your closest loved ones and sending them into financial ruin. “Damages” delivers the damage. “Blue Jasmine” riffs on the major chords but fails to deliver a nuanced solo. The result is as forgettable as running water. Once again there are some marvelous performances Of note: Andrew Dice Clay resurrects himself from the doldrums of self-induced career suicide and  constructs a meaningful rendering of a little man caught in a rich man’s world.  Unfortunately Allen fails to possess the writing ability to raise this person from the shoals of caricature.... a problem that has plagued his ‘serious’ work for many decades. It all stems from Allen’s dread of real emotional connection and revelation.

Woody Allen’s Wikipedia bio, which omits any mention of his messy divorce and high profile court fight with his long-time producers, has a brief line about Allen’s father: Martin Konigsberg. They describe him as a “jewelry engraver and a waiter.”  There is another profession the elder Konigsberg had which is not listed. During the heyday of Allen’s work in the late 70s and early 80s his father was a messenger in Allen’s production office.  It is hard to understand this arrangement as one might think Allen might prefer to buy the old man a small house in Boca Raton rather than face him EVERY DAY at work.  It is difficult to know the inter-personal dynamics - certainly Woody isn’t blabbing.  But it sheds light on a die-hard work ethic. Certainly Mr. Konigsberg felt the need to show up for the job and earn his keep. Having been born in 1900 he was in his late 70s early 80s at the time and no doubt he might have found an easier way of passing the time. It is interesting to pair this ‘need to work’ with Allen’s own obsessive dedication to his career. Throughout all the personal turmoil he never has gone a year without having some substantial project to show for it. One might say the process has overtaken his need to dig in the emotional weeds of self-examination. Humor has always been a trusted friend from the demons of personal-introspection. Unfortunately dramatic work requires the personal risk of ‘putting yourself on the line’.  “Blue Jasmine” has an important moment centered around a child formally rejecting a parent.  It is, despite strong performances, merely another note in the clumsy storyline. Strange to think Allen himself has faced this torment and yet there is nothing of ‘him’ in this writing - just platitudes and plot points. But perhaps the expectation that Allen would live up to his ‘press’ really misses the point. Mr. Konigsberg, who died a centenarian, might be able to say a thing or two about people the press dub as ‘geniuses’.  He strikes me as someone who wasn’t interested in hype - life is about the bottom line. I think that spirit is passed down in his son.  The Wikipedia page lists scores of accolades - including a life sized bronze sculpture of himself erected in a town in Spain. Allen is smart enough to know he is more Salieri than Mozart but worrying about that sort of truth is reserved for private school kids. He built his business. He  sells stuff that people like and playing ‘genius’ is part of the schtick.  They want to complain - they can come to him. He’s not collecting Oscars or giving seminars or wasting time on talk shows. I imagine a film reviewer asking him, point blank: why don’t you try harder? Why not make a real film about betrayal instead of showcasing vain, shallow representations of rich and poor? The nebbish/kooky artist would vanish and he’d be face to face with Sammy Glick who would stare deep into their eyes: “Who the f#%* are you? What have you directed lately? How much money did you earn last year?”... then after a pause.... “What do you drive?”..... Then after an even longer pause  “You’re not getting tickets for a screening of the next one... you’re paying retail like everyone else”. 

Woody is laughing all the way to the bank.... of course it’s not really about the money... that’s only valuable in that it’s proof of his standing with the ruling class. But there is a sense that he’s playing everyone for what it’s worth.  He’s funny but I sense an emptiness when he stops telling jokes. I am in the vast minority. If Woody’s dad’s age is any indicator of the director’s longevity:  there will scores of more films, the hottest talent will be lining up to be in them and people in the know will be lining up to see them. As the song goes, “It’s nice work if you can get it.” I wonder, is this a comedy?... or something else.

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