No Repentance in Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’

From the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah, the resonant blast of the shofar awakens us from our daily complacency, and reminds us that the time for repentance (teshuva), forgiveness (selicha) and prayer (tefillah) is nigh. The liturgy repeats the same message: God is sovereign; God prefers us to pray as a community rather than as individuals; and we have freedom of choice to recognize, regret and acknowledge.

Jasmine, who is alcoholic and psychotic in addition to being blue, would find no solace in shul this year. She has not appeased the injured parties; she does not strive to do good; she lacks understanding about the consequences of her actions and cares for no one and nothing that extends beyond her polished and toned epidermis. She is all veneer, from her shellacked nails to her counterfeit name. Free will for her is the ability to maintain a minimum level of Stoli in her blood.

The plot of Woody Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” is straightforward. Hal (Alec Baldwin) is a fraudulent financier in Bernie Madoff clothing. He builds a house of cards that allows him to pamper his wife Jasmine (a luminescent and spellbinding Cate Blanchett) and countless mistresses. They hang with their own in the Hamptons and Park Avenue. Alas, it all comes tumbling down (I will not spoil the one and only surprise of the predictable script by revealing how). Hal is arrested, and Jasmine is evicted and stripped of all but her pearls, her Chanel purse and her delusions of grandeur.


Cate Blanchett (left), Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin on the set of “Blue Jasmine.”

The opening scene introduces us to her en route to San Francisco. Seated in first class, glass tumbler in hand, she maniacally monologues to her exhausted and overly polite seatmate.

Exiled from New York, she heads for the only refuge available, her sister Ginger’s (the happy-go-lucky Sally Hawkins) working-class apartment. The contrast between the two sisters borders on caricature. Ginger is a divorced, single mom who cheerfully bags groceries to make ends meet and maintains a relationship with her ex (Andrew Dice Clay, as the decent, down-to-earth Augie) for the sake of her two young boys.

Scads of reviews have illumined that “Blue Jasmine” is Allen’s homage to Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Indeed, Ginger plays the concerned, compassionate Stella to Jasmine’s demanding and arrogant Blanche DuBois (a role Blanchett recently devoured on Broadway). As with Blanche, Jasmine’s tenuous grip on reality slips away before our eyes.

Ginger is the anti-Jasmine; she accepts, pardons and moves on. Job-like, she even excuses Jasmine her complicity in instigating Ginger’s financial downfall and her family’s ensuing suffering and destruction. Hawkins’ relentless, upbeat sunniness in the face of these offenses would be maddeningly cloying were it not for the lines Allen provides her that help us to understand that although Ginger has forgiven, she has not forgotten. Ginger would not only be welcome at shul, she would have her own pew. Up front, in the expensive seats.

Cinematically, “Blue Jasmine” is lovely, especially the flashback scenes. Of the cast, Michael Stuhlbarg (of the Coen brothers’ “A Singular Man”) is at once creepy, pathetic and nasty. He manages to wrest his scenes from the overpowering Blanchett, a formidable feat. As Chili, Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale is obviously trying to clone Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. He is better when he doesn’t try so hard, which is not often.

Interwoven with the “Streetcar” warp is the weft of the Madoff tragedy. Although the “Blue Jasmine” characters are unambiguously blue-blooded, Allen draws a straight line between the film and the actual events. “Tails of Manhattan” is an allegory he published in the March 30, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. In a nutshell (and I encourage you to Google the short piece), Moscowitz and Silverman are two Madoff victims who committed suicide and are reincarnated as two-lb. lobsters. They bump into each other in a restaurant fish tank, where they recognize Madoff as he peers into their tank and chooses yet again to devour them. Incensed, they leap out of their tank and attack the con artist, sending him screaming into the street where the two persuade him to plead guilty and apologize to his victims.

Alas, “Blue Jasmine” lacks such a satisfying denouement. There are neither mea culpas uttered nor retribution exacted. Hal goes to his grave, eyes and teeth intact. Jasmine fades from view as she spins her cocoon of dementia and denial. Their suffering, however, is not the point. Teshuva, selicha and tefillah is.

Strout’s Sequel Falls Flat

Sequels are risky business. Will that second kiss, second season of an addictive series or second visit to Paris make us swoon like the first, or leave us wishing we’d left well enough alone?

Alas, less is often more. Think Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” (versus “The Lacuna”), or Sarah Gruen’s“Ape House” (versus “Water For Elephants.”) Add Elizabeth Strout’s “The Burgess Boys” (versus her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kittreridge”) to the list.

The Burgess siblings, boy wonder Jimmy and the loser younger twins Susie and Bobby, grew up in Shirley Falls, Maine. Flash forward 30 years to the same town, a site frozen in time with one exception — the recent near doubling of its population by the arrival of refugee Somalis whose presence puts it on the map as the second largest community of Somalis in America. It also puts the town on edge. This is rural, white, overweight and impoverished Maine. The lithe ebony-skinned Somalis with their brilliant silk head coverings, unisex caftans and foreign language, customs and mosque, do not exactly blend in.

Predictably (and somewhat stereotypically), there is an incident that may or may not be a serious hate crime. Susie still lives in Shirley Falls in the family home, and her troubled, sad sack son is the perpetrator. The Burgess boys are both Manhattan lawyers living in Brooklyn. Jimmy has a corner office, a six-figure salary and a six-figure patrician wife, and Bobby still wears worn baggy cords to his job as legal aid counsel. Susie summons them to Shirley Falls for emotional and professional support. Instead, the reunion compels the middle-aged siblings to confront their demoralizing childhood and the trauma that changed each of their lives. None is up to the task. They claw open barely scabbed-over wounds and then retreat to lick their fresh gashes.

The “Olive Kitteridge” Strout, who trusted her reader’s ability to read between the lines, is sorely missed here. Instead we get the disengaged Strout and her clumsy, uninspired, aloof dialogues. I wanted to feel compassion and empathy for these lost souls, but Strout wouldn’t let me in. These individuals have no depth, no exposed inner world to tap into.

Strout’s prose sparks briefly when she turns her pen to the Somali community. Here, her Pulitzer Prize-caliber craftsmanship rematerializes with sentences that enchant and inspire.

By the end of “Olive Kitteridge,” I cared deeply for my complicated friend Olive and wasn’t yet ready to part company. I longed for the last sentence of “The Burgess Boys,” and if any of the lot of them had trespassed for even one more syllable, I would have called the cops.

I have experienced the magic and intimacy KingsoIver, Gruen and Shreve can create when writing at their best. I still eagerly await their newest publications, and I will do the same for the next Strout. But it will only be because I have not given up hope that when I open the first page, it will be Olive who greets me. If it’s the Burgess clan instead, I’m outta here.

The Burgess Boys 

Elizabeth Strout

Random House Publishing Group, 2013