Blue Valentine by Zack Oleson

Is Blue Jasmine Funny?  Film Review by Zack Oleson

Watching Woody Allen’s newest film Blue Jasmine made me a nervous wreck. Which makes sense, considering it’s a film about nervous breakdown, a black comedy about trying to be something you’re not and the strain that comes along with that effort. The basic narrative: a socialite, Jasmine (or Janette; she changes her name depending on the circumstance she finds herself in) moves in with her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after her husband hangs himself in jail, her son drops out of school and out of her house, and she ends up receiving shock treatment after she’s picked up on the street talking to herself.  It’s hilarious!  Our protagonist is a naïve “comedic” character cracking-up, literally—and it’s our duty as audience members to crack up at all these unfortunate series of events. Yet laughing at all this suffering, pretending to find comedy in all these heavy, heavy subjects prove to be quite straining in and of itself.

First, though, allow me to set the scene.  After a classic Woody Allen opening credits (yes, the jazz is there, the frame-by-frame white Windsor font on black background, that’s there, too), we get a rather cheap-looking establishing shot of a jet (read: digital), then we’re thrown into a conversation between strangers on a plane—only this conversation is heavily-one sided.  “Could you imagine me as an anthropologist? Doctors put my parents in an early grave… My plane is to start a new life out here. ‘Go West.’ Was it Horace who said that?”   Meet Jasmine (Cate Blanchett).  Try to keep up.  When the poor old bag sitting next to her meets her husband at the baggage claim, he asks who that woman was.  Her response?  A stranger who “couldn’t stop babbling about her life.”  At this point I wrote in my notebook, “UH-OH.  THIS IS ME.  (IDENTIFICATION).”  A frantic, neurotic over-sharer who tells cab drivers about her panic disorders: just what you need to feel secure.

The rest of film goes roughly as follows: Jasmine’s sister’s boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) gets her a job at a dentist’s office while she takes classes in computer literacy, so as to fulfill her dream-of-the-moment to become an interior decorator.  Her boss assaults her.  Both sisters meet men (played Louis C.K., awkwardly charming as always, and Peter Saarsgard, cleverly introduced by only that voice alone, and that voice melts butter).  Faced with a new opportunity (i.e., new men), both sisters choose to lie in order to seduce their mates.  Once their lies are revealed, Ginger ends up comfortably back in her class, enjoying pizza with the boyfriend her sister convinced her to break up with, while Jasmine moves out and ends up on the street.  Back on the street—right where she started.

What we have with Blue Jasmine is a recipe for high comedy that ends disastrously from one perspective, ends well from another.  Definitely not an easy-breezy Annie Hall affair, it’s subject range from tax fraud to shopping, from finding employment to self-strangulation.  It fits with Woody Allen’s cynical doom-and-gloom fare (think Husbands and Wives, or more recently Match Point); rather than celebrate romanticism, Woody Allen attacks it.   It’s a dark satire directed at American’s wholehearted commitment to making something of yourself.  That’s all well and good, Woody Allen taking on economic justice, mortality, and madness, and there’s nothing like calling on Tennessee Williams to imagine a fall from grace ala Bernie Maddoff.  Worlds colliding, opposites paired together—that should be funny in theory, but there’s something about Blue Jasmine that doesn’t quite work. We’re left with the question of whether to laugh or not.  Seems like a silly question, I know, but by asking, “what’s so funny here?” we end up calling Blue Jasmine what it is: a tragicomedy about the line between dreams and delusions and the madness that ensues once you throw opposites together.

Why do we laugh?

In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson says that “comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbor’s personality ceases to effect us.”  In other words, when we’re cold, when we’re shut off, that’s when we find things funny. Theoretically, we can safely laugh at someone because it keeps him or her in check.  To laugh is to correct behavior, so to speak.  So whose behavior are we correcting in this satire?

Take, for instance, the assault-scene, a tricky scene to satirize even if with the players involved. Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) plays Dr. Flicker, a straight-laced dentist who believes you can learn a lot about a person from looking inside their mouth.  One day he tells Jasmine that she dresses in a very flattering way, and you can surmise what happens next.  How does Jasmine handle all this, though?  With panache—by asking, “Where is all this talk leading to?”  Her flippancy makes watching the scene tolerable; we’re laughing with her, not at the assailant.  No corrective-function there.  Later, in her computer class, her friend says that she doesn’t blame her for “being shaken up.”  Oh, yeah, ya just got sexually molested.  That happens.  Any yuk at that line goes right toward the dismissive friend.  Or is she onto something by not letting any of Jasmine’s troubles affect her?

There’s also the notion that we laugh at things that hit close to home, that seem accurate to the way things really are.  We probably don’t know this woman in real life, so to watch a film about her we have to be willing to suspend our judgment.  Being a spectator affords us objectivity: we have the distance to laugh at poor schmucks as clueless and cruel as we are in our day-to-day life. For example, there’s a scene early on where Jasmine is in the bubble bath going on and on about how hosting her sister is such “hard work”, how she’s “neglected all [her] priorities” (yoga and pilates).  Her husband presents her a gift: a diamond bracelet.  The diamond effectively shuts her up.  Lesson learned?  This is how rich men deal with their chatty-Cathy wives.  Seems accurate.   Or take Ginger, who ends up breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone.  It’s not a conventional choice for Woody Allen, to film a breakup happening over an iPhone, nor is it that interesting to watch, but it is how things go in real life.

So why do we laugh when the first thing Jasmine does after her new boyfriend proposes is reach for her Xanax bottle? Because “a flexible vice may not be so easy to ridicule as a rigid virtue,” as Bergson has it? Jasmine can be funny.  Her redeeming qualities—her earnestness, her dreams, her ambitions—are quite laughable because they border so close to delusions.  Her faults—her poor white privilege, her vitriol towards her sister, her tendency to look the other way—all relatable.  She’s as unsociable as Nicole Kidman’s unfeeling bitch of a mother in Margot and the Wedding. She’s comically inept at talking to her sister Ginger (“Have you ever been abroad—ever?” she ends a long, long meandering on San Francisco reminding her of the Mediterranean when Ginger’s trying her best to entertain her with lunch).  Yet Jasmine is adaptable.  Her diction changes depending on whom she’s with.  When she’s shopping with a friend for the Met Gala, her description of Ginger’s husband slips from “builder” to “contractor” then finally descends to “handyman.”  Her mantra when she’s under duress working at the dentist’s office is, “Remember you are classy.”  We’re just spectators to this ridiculousness, so it’s safe to laugh at this moments. Actually, it’s best not to identify with a comedic character if you actually want to have a good time.  If we follow this coldness equals comedy formula, then enjoying Blue Jasmine is contingent upon being a callous dick (which can be quite enjoyable.) But to laugh at her in other scenes requires a degree of disinterest that I myself could not muster, nor anybody else in the theatre.  Maybe I cared too much for her.  Or maybe it was the Xanax.

Why don’t we laugh?

Besides trivializing suffering and misfired deliveries, there must be other reasons why Blue Jasminedoes not fly.  With high comedy comes a high-minded audience; an ironic work seeks out an intelligent audience that can read between the lines.  Perhaps following the implications of the material in Blue Jasmine gets in the way of actually enjoying it.

There is an idea that vitriol pollutes: an acid tongue affects others and before you know it, the sweetest and most honest around become cold and disheartened.  In Blue Jasmine, we have Ginger taking a turn to the worse as a result of her sister’s influence.  She catches her brother-in-law cheating while she’s out pretending she was rich, then ends up digging at her more than genial husband Auggie (Andrew Dice Clay) for getting too drunk at a soiree: “Nobody likes those Polish jokes,” she chides. Watching Ginger living her sister’s lifestyle is plainly uncomfortable.  Yet in the end, Ginger does end up leaving all that fancy-talk and backstabbing behind.  She moves in directions throughout her narrative, but does not end up actually changing.  And we end up left with a dangerous message: don’t overstep your class, because you’ll end becoming what you hate.  Besides, it’s not worth the effort to change, because you’ll end up right back where you started.

Along those same uncomfortable lines, the questions Chili asks Jasmine come across as invasive and cold yet do effectively dig at the truth.  At their initial meeting, he asks, “Do you always stare off into space like that?”  Later, phoning in his support of her dreams/delusions, he asks, “So whaddya gonna study when you go back to college?”  Cannavale is good at providing the ying to the yang in all this madness, delivering simple, understated yet uncomfortable questions that cut everybody down to reveal the truth to all this dissembling, all this hiding little truths here and there.  (But he’s not always good.  There’s a laughably bad confrontation between him and Hawkins after his character where he spouts, “Two of you were in the corner playing kissy face,” literally in the blue-color.  Poor Sally Hawkins phones in such wooden dialogue.  Talk about hitting the nail on the head.)  By way of Chili, the film pokes fun at the idea that any fool can make it in America if only they dream big.

Uncomfortable truths, revelations of lies—none of this is belly-laugh material.  And we haven’t even gotten to the character of Jasmine.  The fact that Jasmine doesn’t change, that she goes back to her old habits, her old patterns time and time again is also disturbing on some level. Take the scene where Ginger asks why she flew first class when she’s broke.  There’s a difference between her “splurging from habit” and her confession, “I get bad thoughts when I’m alone”: the former is funny; the latter is not.  Both are divulged early on in the film, when Jasmine first comes to stay with Ginger. With the former, it’s ludicrous of Jasmine to even mention her first class flight in her sister’s humble dwelling.  Any chuckle arising from that line is soft rebuke, a knowing one, because isn’t it so Jasmineto try to make herself feel better, flying first-class.  We forgive her because we already know her. Now, “I get bad thoughts when I’m alone”?  That’s a different story, because it gets at the heart of her motivation.  She’s admitting to her family why she’s behaving so frantically, why there’s such a disconnect between what’s she’s saying and the reality of the situation.  Jasmine comes to stay with Ginger not because she needs money, but because she does not want to be alone.  Isn’t that too sad to laugh at?

Perhaps we don’t laugh because we’re watching a tragedy, not a comedy.  Now, to say that we’d need to make some distinctions.  Classically, tragedy implies ending in death, and in Blue Jasmine we’re left only with the threat of death: Jasmine cutting herself off and fending for herself on the street. Comedy implies a happy ending for lowly characters, which could account for Ginger’s story ending so well.  What we could have is something in between: tragicomedy.  Tragicomedy mixes classes and subject matter, frequently employing a double or parallel plot (i.e., Jasmine’s plot; Ginger’s plot). Woody Allen here is working in an old-school mode of tragicomedy developed in the early seventeenth century by playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.  Defined by them, a tragicomedy is a “romantic and fast-moving plot of love, jealousy, treachery, intrigue, and disguises, and ends in a melodramatic reversal of fortune for the protagonists, who had hitherto seemed headed for a tragic catastrophe.”  “Fast-moving”? Check.  “Love, jealousy, treachery, intrigue, and disguises”?  Check. But only one plot ends happily; the other ends catastrophically.  So it makes sense that we’re left so disturbed, given the tragic fate for at least one of the protagonists.

This equation so far—we don’t laugh at uncomfortable tragedy—leaves out something glaringly obvious: maybe the reason why this “comedy” doesn’t work is Cate Blanchett being too much of a steal-stealer.  Cate Blanchett starred in Liv Ullman’s production of Street Car Named Desire in 2009, so it makes perfect sense that Woody Allen would want her for his update of Streetcar.  Her every gesture and expression stand out so much so that the comedy that the writer-director wrote is lost when his star can’t help but use the material to create a fully-realized, therefore not entirely unsympathetic character.

Blanchett’s charisma is straight-up distracting, but some of the motion sickness can be attributed to the film, not the star.  This is a Woody Allen movie, after all: the pace is quick and every time we start to feel for a character, the rug’s pulled from beneath us.  A cut here, a bomb dropped in that conversation: at a backyard barbecue in San Francisco hosted by Bobby Cannavale’s character, the talk goes from Russian Vodka to strangulation within seconds.  There are also scenes where you watch Jasmine and wonder, “Who is she talking to?”  There’s no shot-reverse-shot to reveal whose Jasmine’s soundboard at the moment; it’s just a long take of Cate Blanchett bringing her best Blanche DuBois-meets-Kim Novak to another monologue, another soliloquy.   The effect is jarring but you get your answer: she’s talking to nobody, or at least anybody who will listen.

Blue Jasmine is a film that takes seriously the sentiments of its protagonist.  Her whims, her moods, her joys and sorrows structure the sequence of events.  In other words, whatever Jasmine’s got going on in her head decides the order in which scenes appear.  Somebody says something about France? We get a flashback to the moment Jasmine found out her husband was cheating on her with their au pair.  In effect, the film becomes not only a vehicle for Cate Blanchett to showcase her skill as an actress, and Woody Allen has given her character the agency to plot the film.  Given that power, it’s impossible not to find her unsympathetic.  Blue Jasmine ends up being a case study in too much pathos generated by too many different ethos.  The result?  We can’t laugh.

Walking out of the theatre, all of us audience members realized it was raining.  There was a collective moment of shock, of registering the world the world outside, how it had changed since we’d last seen it, two plus hours ago.  A fashionable yet angry woman marched by the theatre wearing a Duane Reade bag on her head to protect her hair.  When I opened my umbrella, I thought of another film about a mad woman, Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss.  (Times like this I wish I had my own film to follow the associations in my head.  Ah, well).  In the opening scene of that non-laugher, blonde and beautiful yet completely unhinged Ms. Voss wanders up to a man waiting for a bus in the rain, looking for a connection as well as his umbrella.  Like the girl marching by wearing a scowl so no one will mess with her, like Jasmine, and probably like me, she’s looking for any port in a storm.  We’re all mad here, and I’m still not sure whether to laugh at such desperation.