Nebbish Say Nebbish Again

Woody Allen takes on the financial crisis? Niall Anderson withdraws his savings.

He'll take your money! RUN!
He’ll take your money! RUN!

An idea for Woody Allen’s next film. An experienced and somewhat notorious director turns up at a film festival to tout his new film. The festival could be Cannes, it could be Venice, but this being a Woody Allen film, let’s make it Tribeca. The director’s new film centres on the step-by-step destruction of a central female character, with her destruction acting at least partly as a metaphor for some wider apocalypse. During the course of a press conference before the film’s premiere, the director muses out loud on his motivations and aesthetic. ‘I used to think I was a Jew,’ he says. ‘But now I realise I’m a Nazi.’ He says it again. ‘I’m a Nazi.’ There are gasps and nervous giggles, and the press conference putters on politely for the next ten minutes, but everyone in the room knows that a storm is coming.

I offer this plot to Woody because, in Blue Jasmine, he has made his first Lars von Trier film. It has everything: English dialogue that is somehow not quite English; insultingly whimsical plotting; the odd fancy-schmancy poetic interlude (just because); and above all a central female character who is insulted and toyed with by fate, before being utterly destroyed because – it turns out – she’s a total fucking bitch.

Cleaving still closer to the Von Trier template, the way in which she’s a bitch is supposed to say something about the failures of our common humanity. But where Von Trier would contrast the neurotic frailty of his protagonist with visions of profligate nature (talking foxes, haunted horses, blood-spunking penises), Woody has to find his own metaphor for the horrors of life. And find it he does: poor people.

Life on the skids, Woody Allen style: Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett in 'Blue Jasmine'
Life on the skids, Woody Allen style: Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’

Blue Jasmine is a nervy movie. From almost the very first frame, the film wells up with discordances, not all of them deliberate. The eponymous and regal Jasmine (Cate Blanchett playing Cate Blanchett playing Tilda Swinton) arrives in San Francisco from New York, having flown first-class despite clearly not being able to afford it. This is the first discordance. The second is that the first person she meets is from New York. Indeed, practically everyone she meets in San Francisco is from New York. This, one feels, has more to do with where the movie was cast than where it’s supposed to be set: a characteristic piece of Allen laziness. (It could also, of course, be another tribute to Lars von Trier, who has now managed to set half a dozen films in America while apparently never visiting the place.)

Jasmine appears at first to be in San Francisco to visit her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), but, no, this isn’t a visit: Jasmine has come to stay. She is running from something; otherwise why would she be squatting in the grubby apartment of her clearly detested sister, with Ginger’s two chubby kids, and her even chubbier boyfriend Chili? (Chili, incidentally, is from exotic New Jersey.)

In a series of bluntly executed but hazily imagined flashbacks, we begin to piece together what happened. Jasmine was once a society wife on the Upper East Side. She was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a professional investor who turned out to be a fraud in the Madoff style. Among his many victims were Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay): make-do-and-mend bohemians who announce one evening at dinner – as you do – that they have just won the lottery. As you do. Maybe, Jasmine suggests, you’d like to invest your winnings with Hal: he’ll double them, triple them, quadruple them! Instead, of course, he bankrupts them.

There is the germ of something interesting here. Did Jasmine always know that Hal was a fraud? Is this, in fact, why she suggests the scheme to Ginger – so that her sister will be ruined in the very act of propping up Jasmine’s own status? There is even a tentative metaphor here for the way the financial haves were effectively propped up by the have-nots even before the 2008 Wall Street crash. This is unusually searching for later Allen, and unusually subtle for him in any era.

But then you come back to the convenient fluke of that lottery win. Did it really have to be a lottery win? And did Hal have to take all of it? Ponzi schemes like Bernie Madoff’s only work if the fraud is discreet: so you take proportionately little from a rich person, and a proportionately larger amount from mid- and low-level investors. The entire point is to have new cash floating round the system at all times, with the risk being shouldered preponderantly by a larger number of small investors. Ginger and Augie wouldn’t have needed a financial supernova like a lottery win to make them a legitimate target for Hal: all they would have needed was a freak inheritance or a lucrative accident claim. Or, I don’t know, some fairly unextravagant white-collar jobs.

"If you stay with me, Jasmine, I promise I'll call my daughter right now and call her a rude, thoughtless pig." Alec Baldwin emotes.
“If you stay with me, Jasmine, I promise I’ll phone my daughter right now and call her a rude, thoughtless pig.” Alec Baldwin emotes.

Financial illiteracy aside, it’s quickly clear that the lottery Allen is really interested in is The Great Lottery Of Life. Why have Jasmine and Ginger had the same upbringing but such divergent adult lives? Why are their definitions of success so different, and so often at odds? This is more familiar Allen territory: we’ve seen it in Crimes and Misdemeanours or Hannah and Her Sisters. But at least in those films the warring families were more or less of the same class. Blue Jasmine intends to be a film about how the ongoing financial crisis has affected people on every rung of the ladder.

Again, this is pretty ambitious – and not just for Woody. I don’t expect Scorsese’s forthcoming The Wolf Of Wall Street to be any more shrewd or intelligent on the subject of financial depredation. But Scorsese at least understands class. Woody Allen, frankly, does not. What little comedy Blue Jasmine contains is almost entirely about how slobby and uncultured the poor are, and what a mess they make of their lives and their environments.

We see all this stuff through Jasmine’s eyes as she struggles to adjust to a life on reduced means. The comedy is therefore supposed to go both ways, with the haughty Jasmine completely flummoxed by the reasonable – but perhaps ill-expressed – demands the working class make on her. But it is notable that she is still always in a position of power over these people: even working as a dentist’s receptionist, she has the power to grant or deny people’s requests. The film thus sides with her distaste, and grants her one escape after another from shitty situations that the rest of the characters would just have to stick with.

Until, of course, she runs out of wiggle room. The last forty minutes of Blue Jasmine are heavy going indeed. The full back-story of Jasmine’s disgrace and fall is revealed. Her decorative heavy drinking and pill-popping suddenly become a problem. Her habit of talking to herself when alone reaches an incessant peak. Cate Blanchett begins reaching for her Oscar …

How to greet Woody Allen next time you see him
How to greet Woody Allen next time you see him

The final humiliations Allen has planned for Jasmine seem cruel and unusual even by his crotchety standards, and their flippant execution even more so. Without giving anything away, the film’s final act is set in motion by that most Allenish of wheezes – a chance meeting on a busy city street. A new major character is introduced with a positively Dickensian flourish, and with a rug-pulling nastiness that the viewer feels as keenly as Jasmine. More to the point, the existence of the new character has nothing to contribute to the themes the film has so far explored. The character appears purely to bring Jasmine right to the edge of tragedy, where she belongs – we are now asked to acknowledge – because she is a total fucking bitch.

After so much sourness, so much wooliness, and this final insult to plausibility and Jasmine’s human dignity, it would be a positive relief if the film ended with a Von Trier-style apocalypse, or at the very least with Jasmine mounting the gallows and doing herself in. But tragedy has never been Woody’s style. May I therefore suggest, in the spirit of comedy, that he borrow one last trick from von Trier: have the word ‘fuck’ tattooed on your knuckles, make a fist, and punch yourself repeatedly in the face. Not because you’re a Nazi; because you’re a schmuck.

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