Woody Allen, that hardy perennial, returns as predictably as Santa Claus, although, like Santa, he’s getting a bit up in years now. Like Santa, too, he sometimes has a present in his bag, but often enough it’s pretty empty. This year’s offering, Blue Jasmine, features the splendid Cate Blanchett and a few other touches, but for the most part, it leaves one simply asking, Why?
Why, for starters, tack a pseudo-adaptation of Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire onto a ripped-from-the-day-before-yesterday’s-headlines story about a Madoff-like tycoon getting his comeuppance? Allen’s natural milieu is the upper middle class Upper West Side, occasionally transposed to other locales but with essentially the same cast of characters. He doesn’t really understand the elite circles of wealth and power, and still less the working poor far below. Class conflict is not at all his thing. Getting into these matters, he’s bound to stumble.
Allen’s Blanche DuBois is Jasmine, nee Jeanette, the jumped-up wife of investment-scammer Hal (a comatose Alec Baldwin). Blanchett, who herself played an acclaimed Blanche in a 2009 production of Streetcar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, knows the grooves of the role she’s called on to play, but for all her craft she can’t make the Allen version believable. The reason for this is that the self-invented Jasmine comes from nowhere just as she is going nowhere, a fantasy figure unmoored to any social reality.
This isn’t the case with Williams’ Blanche. We recognize her at once as decayed Southern gentry, and her earthier sister Stella as someone making an awkward but still credible adjustment downward on the social scale. There’s class contrast here, but not conflict as such—except for the dramatic conflict set up between Blanche and Stella’s husband, Stanley. And Blanche and Stella truly are siblings, their differences of character and temperament notwithstanding.
Allen can’t make us believe in Jasmine and the Stella stand-in, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) as biological sisters, so he has them both as adopted ones. This would account for their physical dissimilarity (Jasmine tall, blonde, and long-limbed; Ginger short, skinny, and brunette), but not for their completely different class markings. If they were raised in the same household, they’d have to have some trace of a common upbringing, but there is none. It’s not simply that we haven’t a clue who their adoptive parents were, but that we can’t imagine what they might have been. Jasmine has risen in the world with Hal, but has Ginger fallen with her former husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), or her Stanley-like boy friend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale)? Jasmine thinks so—and she and Hal are partly responsible, having done Ginger and Augie out of a lottery winning, thereby contributing to the breakup of their marriage—but we can’t really situate Ginger anywhere. When we meet her, she’s bagging groceries, but her apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District is middle-class to an almost painfully impeccable degree. We spend a lot of time in it, but it tells us nothing about who Ginger is or was; rather, it seems Allen’s generic fantasy about how the other half must live.
We learn that Jasmine was a college dropout, having studied the not very practical subject of anthropology (and, to judge by her relationship to Hal, having learned very little about it). It is clear that Ginger has had no college, which leaves us with another query: why does one girl get to go to college, and another from the same family not? Like everything else about the two sisters, it’s a question that yields no answers.
In Williams, the confrontation between Blanche and Stanley that is the climax of the play shows both stripped to the raw, a contest in which the vulnerable Blanche must be destroyed. No such thing happens in Blue Jasmine. Chili resents the now-beggared Jasmine for moving in with Ginger just as he was about to, but, although his hostility is apparent, he never challenges her; indeed, when Ginger cheats on him, he begs pathetically for her to take him back. Not much Stanley Kowalski there: indeed, from Hal on down, there’s not a hint of genuine masculinity in any of the film’s male characters.
It’s Jasmine, though, who remains finally unreal to us. Though she’s latched onto Hal and learned to dress and act the part of a society grande dame, she remains willfully ignorant both of his scheming and philandering, and, when the truth is borne home on her, she impulsively destroys them both. A girl good enough to climb as high as she has would need well-honed survival skills, but Allen asks us to believe that Jasmine would do the one thing guaranteed to leave her penniless without so much as a thought for her future, let alone the son she also drags into ruin. Blanche, cornered by Stanley, bares her claws, but it seems that Jasmine won’t spoil a manicure to save herself. Even the valiant effects Blanchett brings to her portrayal can’t construct a credible character from these shards.
Jasmine’s Shep Huntley is Dwight Westlake (Peter Skarsgaard). In Williams, Shep is an old beau who never materializes, but Dwight, a fortyish rich kid who works rather nebulously for the State Department and has vague aspirations to run for office, meets Jasmine at a party and is smitten by her. Dwight has just bought a huge, empty mansion, and Jasmine, who pretends to be an interior decorator, offers to furnish it. One thing leads to another and Dwight proposes, only to back out when Augie, meeting them in the street, spills the beans about who Jasmine really is.
This episode shows the shakiness of Allen’s grip on his material. The happenstance of Augie running into Dwight and Jasmine as Dwight is about to buy her wedding ring isn’t the problem, nor is his embittered tirade (nicely delivered by Dice Clay), but, rather, the whole setup between the lovers. Jasmine meets Dwight at a party she attends with Ginger, but what would Dwight be doing at a party to which Ginger had been invited or at which she might even show up? They aren’t even on the same planet. And how would the ambitious Dwight entertain the thought of marriage, still less propose, without doing a background check on Jasmine? How, indeed, has she concealed her identity, since she is presumably notorious, if not necessarily in Ginger’s world then certainly in Dwight’s? Jasmine, in her desperation, might hope to get away with the cover story she concocts for herself. But Dwight—and his parents, to whom Jasmine’s been introduced—would never go this far, just as he would never have crossed paths with her at the sort of party Ginger could attend. These aren’t fussy details; they are the essence of a credible plot, and, beyond that, the rendering of the class divisions that, in a film such as this, makes for one.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a tragedy whose elements of humor grow naturally out of it; in Blue Jasmine, Allen tries to keep milking the same plot for laughs. It jars. Jasmine has a scene where, babysitting Ginger’s two small sons, she pops their eyes with an uncensored view of her life. It’s funny, but gratuitous, and makes her look not only careless but stupid. You don’t build tragic character that way; you don’t even invite pity. In the end, Jasmine sits on a public bench, talking to herself. She is homeless, alone, and no kind stranger has come to lead her away. I did feel sorry, but only for Cate Blanchett, doing her best with a role that travestied a stage triumph.
As for Woody Allen, well—better luck next year.