Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Blue's Clues

I mentioned Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine, in yesterday's post. It's getting good reviews and looks like it'll be a hit.  Fine with me, but really, while it's a better than average "serious" film by Woody, it still shares the flaws of so much of his work--thin characters, slapdash plotting, even a general cluelessness regarding how people live.

(Spoilers ahead.)

It's a sort of Streetcar Named Desire meets Bernie Madoff.  Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins both do good work (and are part of the epidemic of non-American actors playing American roles). I wasn't planning to beat up on the film, but after reading Richard Brody and David Denby overpraise it in The New Yorker, I wanted to respond.

Brody writes "Allen has crafted a masterwork of construction. His writing is pointed and lucid, aphoristic and exemplary."

In fact, the construction is a shambles, depending on coincidence and even nonsense.  The writing is also wanting, full of scenes where people openly announce their beliefs and feelings.

Let me give a few examples.  Blanchett plays Jasmine, who used to live in luxury until her crooked husband Hal (Alex Baldwin) was arrested, and is now penniless and living with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

In a flashback, Ginger visits Jasmine in New York and while touring the town spies Hal with another woman.  Fine. New York may be a big place, but you're allowed one coincidence to get the plot going. It has some story value, but mostly peters out, and Jasmine later finds out from another friend that Hal is a serial cheater and everyone in town knows it.

Brody notes "The spring of a plot coils tighter through the practical stages of Jasmine’s struggle to regain a place on earth."

In San Francisco, to get back on her feet, Jasmine plans to become an interior decorator.  These are the kinds of jobs people do in Woody Allen films, though they usually become photographers when they discover they've got an eye for it. A course is too expensive, but she discovers you can get an interior decorator...certificate?...degree?...I can't remember...on line.  So she takes a computer class to learn all about this mysterious thing called a computer so she can learn how to become an interior decorator.  Now I realize Woody is 77 and still uses a typewriter, but really, isn't there anyone in San Francisco willing to turn on Jasmine's computer and get to the website where she can get this totally worthless training?

A friend in the computer class invites her to a tony party in Marin County.  Since she's been hanging out with one-dimensional blue collar types, this finally gives her the chance to wear her fancy clothes and meet an eligible rich man, as she depends on the kindness of strangers.  She meets a guy all too easily.  Woody knows where he wants the plot to go but can't be bothered to make their relationship believable. Instead, we have an impossibly perfect guy, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard)--handsome, smart, ambitious, articulate, wealthy--who falls for her immediately. Also, his wife just died and he needs an interior decorator.

Jasmine lies about her past to avoid unpleasant questions, and they're in downtown San Francisco to purchase an engagement ring when who should they run into but Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the construction worker who used to be married to Ginger and lost all his money investing with Hal.  This is a pretty big coincidence, and the movie already used up its quota. (When Brody writes "there’s a plot twist, too good even to hint at, that arrives like a thunderbolt" I think he means this one.)

Augie, who's just in from Alaska, tells off Jasmine, spilling the beans and making Dwight dump her on the spot. Augie also mentions he just saw her son Danny who'd run away (leaving Harvard and a promising career) and is now in Oakland.  This is a double coincidence--Augie knows where her son is, and the son just happens to live nearby.

Now maybe I missed the preparation for all this. Maybe there was some mention of Augie stalking Jasmine, preparing to run into her in the jewelry district just before she got her ring.  Maybe I missed the line where we discovered when Danny repudiated his mom, he went all the way across the country to Ginger, even though Jasmine and Ginger were all but estranged, and then Ginger helped set him up dealing in second-hand instruments rather than be a lawyer or whatever else he wanted, and also contacted Augie about this even though by that point they were almost certainly divorced.

In well-written drama, things don't just happen, they're prepared for.  If Woody had spent a little time on construction, he could have had Jasmine's house of cards fall in on her naturally--some flaw in her character made other characters do the things they'd do to destroy her, or somehow she gave herself away despite her attempts not to.  But no, Woody needs the plot to go somewhere, so he has his puppets just do it.

And I'm not even getting into the simplistic characters and plot mechanisms surrounding Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) or Al (Louis C. K.).

At one point, Jasmine takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist's office, and she's horrible at it. (I realize this isn't the toughest job in the world, but would she really be hired with no experience?)

Here's how David Denby sees it:

The miracle is that we feel for Jasmine—or, at least, our responses to her are divided between laughter and sympathy. When she takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, and the patients can’t decide when to schedule their next appointment, her irritation at their fumbling is both funny and recognizable.

I don't think so, David. Sometimes you have to work out your schedule with a receptionist, and one who's snippy or frustrated with you is doing a rotten job and should be fired.

Denby ends his piece, as he does so many of his reviews, trying to tie the film to how it relates to the world as he sees it:

“Blue Jasmine” may be derived from Williams, but Allen has merged Williams’s fable with the reality of 2013. Jasmine’s economic slide, to one extent or another, has been experienced by millions of Americans. In all, this is the strongest, most resonant movie Woody Allen has made in years.

To one extent or another?   She had a fancy apartment on Park Avenue as well as a beautiful place in the Hamptons, shopped at the most expensieve boutiques, ate at the fanciest restaurants, and traveled around the world. Yes, many Americans went through an "economic slide," but very few can relate to that.  For that matter, most didn't fall so low, with no job, no obvious skills, a husband committing suicide in jail, a son who's disappeared, time spent in the loony bin and hooked on pills and alcohol.  We may be moved by her plight, but I don't see it resonating too well with the average experience of Americans in 2013.

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