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.

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