Headed Separate Ways
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Woody Allen
Watching foreign actresses playing white American socialites is an occupation, like lawyer, seamstress, or federal agent. There's an actual word for it, but it's filthy.
There are these tiny little apartments in San Francisco, maybe you've seen them? They're for wealthy people. Everything is for wealthy people, Woody Allen's new film Blue Jasmine tells us, and he knows this from experience. About eighty minutes in to Blue Jasmine, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) suggests that he and Jeanette (Cate Blanchett) spend the next three years in Vienna. Watching Cate Blanchett consider this proposal is the task of the person with the job that sounds like a filthy word.
Foreign actresses all loathe the American parts they have to play because they're fake and made up. After the death of her husband, Jeannette has moved to San Francisco to be with her sister Ginger (British actress Sally Hawkins). Even though she has no money and no other place to go, she still flies first-class.
It's like a regular American family, except all the people in it are, you know, not Americans. There's one point where someone asks Jeanette where she grew up and she reflexively lies, another time she says "New York." We never find out where she grew up, but Allen takes great care to inform us that these women are adopted.
The main incident in Jeanette's life, the one that really stuck with her, was meeting her husband Hal. They were together for 30 years, you see. In this time, in the fiction of Blue Jasmine, virtually nothing happened except vacations (St. Tropez), golf (The Masters). Nothing really happens to rich people, Allen is informing us, so your jealousy of them is misplaced.
Now impoverished, Jeannette takes a job as a receptionist in a dental office. The man Woody Allen hired to portray the dentist fills his own coffers by performing in a stage show as famed Jew Arnold Weinstein. Jeanette disapproves of her sister's boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) because he is some kind of weird 1990s Woody Allen memory of what the one working class person he met briefly at an event was like:
Flashbacks interrupt the tedium of Jeannette's San Francisco life. She had a beautiful home with her now-deceased husband Hal. He was the gentile Bernie Madoff, but even when we know what is behind them, his slick business assertions enthrall everyone present. Until one significant moment, we are as overwhelmed by Alec Baldwin's choice in belts as his wife and everyone he meets.
That's until Andrew Dice Clay comes on the scene; somehow his body has crumbled into this beautiful thing:
Hal is of course repulsed by this construction worker brother-in-law, and steals all the money that he won in the lottery by funneling it into his Ponzi scheme. (That's how poor people get $200,000, Woody Allen could imagine no other feasible way.) But Dice Clay's Augie is equally repulsed by Hal, and it reflects poorly on both of them that they cannot find any common ground whatsoever.
In the present of Blue Jasmine, a divorced-with-two-kids Ginger bags groceries and looks for a new boyfriend, someone her sister will be more impressed by. This is what she finds:
These women are not as hapless as they first appear. They do not really have very bad choice in men, although once Chili is so mad that he breaks a telephone. Not a cell phone, like a telephone you might have seen in The Maltese Falcon.
Jeanette tries taking a computer course, but all she gets from that experience is an invitation to a party. That's where she meets another widower. She lies to him about her past, about the husband who hung himself in his prison cell. For a few vague moments, Jeanette considers the possibility of a new life containing all the allure of her previous existence.
Woody's grasp of low culture is what you would expect of a 77-year-old man. Unlike the upper class, the lower class is constantly forced to change its parameters, but for the very wealthy, it is always Paris before the war. His assessments of the people he chose to surround himself with feel somewhat relevant.
We judge Jeanette/Jasmine the most harshly. Everything Blue Jasmine does to win us to her side falls flat: we see the excess of her old life and have to admit she deserves her new one. It's a bad reflection on the people who put this maudlin little stage show together that we can't feel pity for a sobbing once-rich woman babbling to herself in a public park, but it's a condemnation of ourselves as well.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Philip Johnson. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
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