The new movie, Blue Jasmine, has been so wildly embraced by critics, while being so replete with its writer-director’s worst tendencies, that it provides the best example in years of Woody Allen’s status as America’s most overrated filmmaker. At the center of the picture is the calculatedly neurotic performance by the otherwise fine actress Cate Blanchett, who exhausts our patience within five minutes and, for having done so, has emerged as a front runner for the Academy Award; her Jasmine is the stranger next to you on a plane who never shuts up about herself and commandeers your attention without a clue or care that you might have a life too, since she decided long before she laid eyes on you that you exist for no reason but to enable her or advance her interests or, if need be, save her. She’s certainly not somebody in whose company you want to spend an hour and a half, even with a movie screen between you.
Admirers of Blue Jasmine have characterized the movie as the story of a woman trying to figure out who she is, but that’s preposterous. Nothing Jasmine does or says suggests she has the slightest interest in who she is or that the question has crossed her mind or Allen’s mind. Aspiring to be the wife of one rich man or another, she feels wounded enough when someone calls her a phony for her self-pity to kick into overdrive but not enough to examine the likelihood, growing with every passing moment, that the reason people keep saying it is because it’s true. She turns a blind eye when her wheeler-dealer husband played by Alec Baldwin criminally defrauds everybody in his orbit (including Jasmine’s sister), and though everybody around Jasmine can see he’s a lout who thinks extracurricular girlfriends are to be cashed in like the investment funds of the unsuspecting, she lives in denial until she no longer can. When she exposes her husband to the FBI, it’s not an act of conscience taken because innocent people are being hurt but an act of revenge because she’s been hurt. No one in Blue Jasmine is empathetic—Jasmine’s sister comes closest until we learn she’s as opportunistic in her love life as everyone else—but that isn’t the problem: It’s possible, as in the case of the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, to make great art about characters who are disagreeable without exception. It’s another thing to make art about characters we don’t like who never feel authentic and who are transparently the intellectual props of someone who doesn’t care enough about people to try knowing them.
Blue Jasmine is the latest evidence of how superficial Allen’s concerns always have been and the extent to which his humor and New York sensibility have lured critics and filmgoers into overlooking his shallowness. His movies are shot through with a contempt—for women in particular, though in fairness he’s not much nicer about men or, for that matter, himself—that caught up with the pictures years or decades ago but is all the more obvious now that his wit is manifestly sapped. Let’s not undercut our argument by overstating it: Allen has made good films, and reviewers certainly have panned films of his that are too conspicuously bankrupt not to be panned. The critical hegemony, however, remains poised to consume whole anything that gives them an excuse to, as in the case of Midnight in Paris, an enormously appealing but slight film with a conceit that verges on gimmickry but constitutes for Allen profundity. Some of his more resonant and accomplished pictures are most distinguished by what’s rare about them, which is an affection generally unfelt in Allen’s work—for the city that Allen loves in the case of Manhattan, for his own medium in the case of The Purple Rose of Cairo. But there’s little affection for humanity in any of them, and when there is, it feels forced. Over time, critics have been desperate to love the philosophically confused Crimes and Misdemeanors, the one-trick Zelig, the London movies Match Point, and to a lesser extent, Scoop, otherwise known as Woody’s I-Really-Only-Want-to-Sleep-With-Scarlett-Johansson-But-I’ve-Sort-Of-Begun-To-Realize-Just-How-Creepy-That-Is Period.
Allen and his admirers alike are trapped by a sense of futility about his work that dares not speak its name. The lion is too deep in winter for anybody to rationally hope his artistry will change; there’s little reason to believe that, like Buñuel (who appeared as a character in Midnight in Paris), Allen will get better, wiser or bolder as he grows older yet. His work ethic is unflagging and admirable on the face of it—he knocks out a movie every year—but it hasn’t served him well as the failed movies not only mount but call into question the estimable ones: Manhattan is more of a masterpiece when you haven’t seen any of the others. Now the productivity resembles either pathological workaholism or a narcissism that insists we pay attention the way Jasmine insists we pay attention, in a movie that never surprises us, that never veers from its path toward the desolate park bench we know from the outset is waiting, that never defies our expectations because none of the characters possesses the contradictions that elevate great characters above mere types. On that bench, like in the plane seat an hour and a half before when her fellow passenger had nowhere earthbound to flee, Jasmine sits talking to herself (not a plot spoiler) as Allen talks to himself, deigning to allow us the privilege of listening.