Blue Jasmine

12 Aug

I like Woody Allen. I’ve seen most of his movies. He’s made a movie a year for like 40 years. That’s crazy. There’s something familiar and comforting about going to the theater to see a new Woody Allen movie. The black title cards with the Windsor font pop up and the jazz clarinet blares and it just makes me happy. So that’s where I’m coming from.

I think it’s been very good for Mr. Allen to make films outside of New York. His recent “late period” or whatever has been fun to watch unfold. The movies are definitely more vibrant than his New York movies since the mid-90s or so. In a sense, I think it’s made things easier for him. He’s so New York that every little thing about the city was expected to be pitch perfect. When he’s filming in Europe, or now in San Francisco, I don’t think the audience has that same expectation. Or at least, they don’t have the knowledge of those places that they do of New York, so if things don’t live up to the same standard vis-à-vis the setting people can’t tell as easily.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to talk pretty negatively about the use of San Francisco in Blue Jasmine. I didn’t think it was great. Now I have only lived in the Bay Area for a year or so and I don’t even live in SF, but a lot of it just felt a little off to me. The whole concept of this working-class ethnic white community in SF that seems to have been constructed for this movie doesn’t really exist as far as I know. A lot of the filming locations are in neighborhoods populated either by rich hipsters, tech jillionaires, or tourists. That accounts for most of the white people in SF as far as I can tell. And there was that party in Marin County where everyone, including broke-ass Louie CK, was wearing coats and ties. Are you serious? That just feels so East Coast. I don’t get the impression that a lot of rich people here, even old-money types, spend a lot of time in coats and ties. The two locations that really worked for me were the first scene with Andrew Dice Clay in the Outer Sunset and Mr. CK and Sally Hawkins walking at Ocean Beach. Those didn’t feel as much like a tourists idea of “authentic” SF as the rest did. It’s the little things that Mr. Allen can get right in NY that he just kind of missed here. The prodigal son who dropped out of Harvard and works at a music store in Oakland? Perfect. Except he’s supporting a wife and kid. Hipsters in Oakland don’t have wives and kids. Close but not quite there.

It’s unfortunate that this movie came out so soon after Fruitvale Station. Blue Jasmine’s San Francisco can’t match Fruitvale Station’s Oakland. Not even close.

I think Mr. Allen gets pretty much whatever actors he wants, and his casting is sometimes up and down. Mostly up here. Sally Hawkins is underappreciated. I thought she was great in Happy-Go-Lucky. To play such a bubbly character without having it become a caricature is tough, and I thought she pushed it right to the edge without going over. There was some element of that same idea in this role–trying to stay upbeat about a life that didn’t follow the best-case scenario. She was on point. Alec Baldwin also deserves special notice. Although he didn’t seem to need to try very hard. Crooked financier is a perfect role for him. Mr. Clay and Bobby Cannavale were both good, even though they didn’t have a whole lot to do. Plus they were NY characters plopped down in SF. Mr. Cannavale is becoming a favorite of mine. Other recommended performances of his: Win Win and The Station Agent. Cate Blanchett was fine. She didn’t stand out to me, but the whole movie was pretty much on her shoulders and she’s enough of a pro that she never took a misstep. I like Louie CK a lot, but putting him in the mix was a bad idea. He has such a strong individuality and screen persona of his own that it’s almost distracting to drop him into such a small role and expect him to fully inhabit it. To have someone like that in your movie, I think it needs to be a large enough role to let them build something of a fully-developed character. Louie didn’t really get a chance to do that. I think he’d be an interesting choice for Mr. Allen to put in a lead role. Since he stopped playing all of his own main characters, a lot of his male leads (Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Larry David off the top of my head) have spent the whole movie doing a Woody Allen impression. I think Louie is so different from that archetype that he could do something new and different for Woody. It could also be something new and different for Louie, who’s developed a pretty recognizable version of himself on his TV show.

I don’t have many notes on plot or story. It’s a variation on A Streetcar Named Desire, as every critic has pointed out. Some critics love it. I don’t really get why. It was a good story and everything, but it didn’t seem especially incisive about income inequality or relationship power-dynamics or whatever. And it certainly wasn’t the definitive take on “how we live now” or “post-recession America” that some people seem to think. I think a lot of film critics are pretty out of touch. The kind of people who think that San Francisco is a good place to find blue collar people. The whole thing didn’t strike me as anything more than standard Woody Allen kind of stuff. The big drawback of making so many movies is that you have to write a new screenplay every year. That must be grueling and results in a lot of stuff that’s kind of light, honestly. I’ve always been curious about how Mr. Allen’s career would have turned out if he decided to take two or three years per production instead of one.

Here’s a list of places that I’d like to see dramatized in a Woody Allen movie in no particular order:
Florida
Mexico
Staten Island
Minneapolis
Chicago
Any college town
Rural anywhere
China
Los Angeles

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