Something funny happened to Woody Allen, on his way to complete pop-cultural obsolescence: put simply, he became the unlikely beneficiary of that curious media phenomenon whereby ‘critical consensus’ alights upon an artist who has fallen from plauditory grace, and — inventing a ‘comeback’ where nothing of the kind actually exists — anoints him anew. Allen hasn’t made a wholly satisfying film since Crimes and Misdemeanours, the tart, despairing masterpiece with which he rounded out the 1980s. That’s getting on for a quarter of a century ago; yet we keep hearing how he’s ‘made a comeback’, ‘returned to form’, made ‘his best film in years’, etc. We can’t help but wonder what sort of ‘form’ he’s supposed to have returned to, how often someone can ‘come back’, or even how a man who annually augments his filmography can keep on making ‘his best work in years’.
In fact, this heralding of false dawns has now become so routine, that even remarking upon it is becoming a cliché in itself. As indeed is the traditional view that there was a certain synergy between the grotesque implosion of Allen’s private life in the early ’90s, and the concurrent curdling of his artistic vision. (It’s worth noting here, in passing, that Allen was entirely innocent of the accusation that is routinely levelled at him with respect to Soon-Yi, i.e. that he “had an affair with his stepdaughter”; but even allowing for the fact that the two are still together all these years later, his behaviour was decidedly icky, to say the least.)
Either way, until very recently (with the release of the actually quite good Blue Jasmine), the simple fact remained that Woody Allen hadn’t made a decent film in years. During the 1970s, Allen was triumphantly ascendant, as his films evolved from hip screwball satires into the rich and strange blend of ‘romantic comedy’ that proved to be his true metier and helped define the decade. In the ’80s, his seriocomic canvas broadened, his momentum held steady, his handling of narrative grew in depth and complexity, and his judgement never wavered, allowing him to put out utterly sui generis minor classics: the elegiacally congenial Broadway Danny Rose; the affably misanthropic Stardust Memories; and of course the wonderful, deceptively tender sororal ensemble piece, Hannah and Her Sisters — Checkov on the Hudson. Allen seemed to be stumbling a little in the late ’80s, but he then capped the decade with the aforementioned Crimes and Misdemeanours, a film that was very well received at the time, and one that has steadily accrued audience affection and critical gravitas as the years have gone by. (It’s odd to think of it now, but ‘Hannah’ preceded Crimes and Misdemeanours by only three years: the earlier film now seems so much more distant, chronologically, more tethered to its decade in terms of mood and sensibility.)
Was the artistic decline that followed directly related to that sudden, deeply unedifying sex scandal? It’s very hard to say, although we know (from Allen) that his relentless work schedule helped him to compartmentalise his life and thus avoid the horrendous backstage woes — accusations of child molestation, millions of dollars in legal bills — overwhelming him completely. Ironically, his need for work kept his (suddenly very public) private entanglements from rendering him incapable of working at all; but the resultant monomania may have scuppered his artistic judgement. Whatever the truth of such speculations, what’s not in doubt is that he slumped alarmingly in the ’90s and then nosedived in the ’00s, churning out a series of curate’s eggs, interspersed with out-and-out duds. There were mildly enjoyable minor works along the way: the whimsical period charm of Sweet & Lowdown; the inoffensive nostalgia of Bullets Over Broadway; the affable frippery of Manhattan Murder Mystery; and of course those twin curiosities, Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry, both of which were critically popular at the time but have dated very badly, the latter in particular.
In fact, a comparison between those two films might help future scholars locate the exact moment, and manner, in which Allen lost his grip. Husbands and Wives still has glimmers of former glories; Deconstructing Harry belongs more properly to Woody’s later work, where the tone is brash, the acting over-egged, and crass lapses of taste abound. “Do you know about black holes?” asks Allen of an African American prostitute he’s had tie him up, beat him, then fellate him. “Sure honey, that’s how I make my living”, she replies. Classy.
As the Millennium turned, and Allen stuck doggedly to his one film per year production schedule, the flock of turkeys thickened to the point where even long-term Allen devotees began admitting to themselves that the jig was well and truly up. Meanwhile, Allen’s films began to exhibit an increasing tendency towards wearisome plot-reliance, suborning character, performance, and nuance to a central and often gimmicky ‘idea’: positive and negative versions of the same story (Melinda and Melinda); a film director who goes blind (Hollywood Ending); the not very novel assertion that everything hangs on luck (Match Point).
Match Point, which Allen was induced to set and film in London due to unforeseen complications in his financial arrangements, is generally cited as the big ‘comeback’ that reversed his seemingly ineluctable decline. Yet a quick date-delimited Google search reveals the difficulty in finding a ’90s or ’00s Allen film that wasn’t hailed as a return to form. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that Match Point has become the benchmark against which each new Allen film must now be measured, although praising a film as “his best since Match Point” isn’t quite the accolade critics seem to think.
One amusing side effect of Allen’s relocation to London, was to give European audiences an insight into long-standing American criticisms that Allen’s New York films depicted a cosseted, glamorous fantasy world of urbane sophistication that departed from reality to a preposterous extent. In Allen’s London, everybody works in the Gherkin and shops on Bond Street, and we find impecunious ex-pat American actresses living in well-appointed flats in elegant Georgian townhouses. What some people had failed to realise was that this had been his intention all along: according to Allen’s conversations with his official biographer, Eric Lax, he aimed to depict not New York per se, but New York as he romantically imagined it, conjuring up what cinematographer Gordon Willis termed “romantic reality”. So why not do the same with London, Paris, or Barcelona?
Match Point began well, but soon degenerated into a turgid, sub-par Hitchcock pastiche, done no favours by its facile allusions to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and enlivened only by the presence of Scarlett Johansson and her abundant eroticism. (If you doubt this claim, ponder the fact that in order to fulfil the financiers’ stipulation that the film feature an all-English cast, Kate Winslet had originally been pencilled in for the Johansson role.) Allen once described Alfred Hitchcock’s films as ‘airport novels’. He meant the remark to be interpreted as approving — hey, trash literature can be fun — but the unavoidable slight in Woody’s assessment of one of the most important directors in the history of cinema cannot but rebound badly upon Woody Allen himself who, even at his very best, could never have aspired to make anything as artistically resonant as a Hitchcock film, and whose late-period movies are less suitable for comparison with airport novels than with in-flight magazines. Nonetheless, Match Point undoubtedly marked an uptick in Allen’s critical fortunes, and this may have been expected to give Woody a creative boost. But if anything his subsequent films have been even worse, with the follow-up, Scoop (2006), suggesting itself as a persuasive contender for the coveted title of ‘worst Woody Allen film yet’, and indeed as a low point in ’00s cinema.
By this stage, Allen’s films had begun to take on an antic, cringe-makingly broad comedic tone, full of twitchy slapstick, OTT scenery mastication, caricatured mannerisms, and stale, self-plagiarised old jokes. And that’s before we even get to those excruciating narrative voiceovers. Throughout all this, top flight actors (established and upcoming) continued to flock to Allen, their zeal for working with him based entirely on enthusiasm for the sort of films he simply doesn’t make any more. Thus Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) contained a good performance from a wonderful actress (the almost supernaturally radiant Penelope Cruz) which only served to emphasise what a train wreck the rest of the film was. Whatever Works, as the wags said, didn’t: on paper, it should worked like a charm, with the great, Woody-simpatico Larry David essentially playing the ‘Larry David’ character. In reality, it was a travesty, worthy of comparison to Curb Your Enthusiasm only in roughly the same way that, say, Tom Cruise might be compared to Cary Grant.
The title of Anything Else (2003) served as a handy suggestion for what people should watch. Midnight in Paris (2011) was twee, heavy-handed, and — inexplicably — a big commercial hit, giving new financial meaning to the phrase ‘there’s no accounting for taste’. In contrast to the ‘early, funny films’ beloved of the aliens in Stardust Memories, Allen was now making his ‘later, shitty films’. To Rome With Love (2012) was, frankly, the light entertainment equivalent of a haemorrhoid, cheerfully squandering the talents of Judy Davis, Penelope Cruz, and Alec Baldwin. It also featured possibly Allen’s most egregiously irritating, slap-inviting performance to date: no mean feat.
Allen’s accelerating decline has been immensely painful to witness, and it’s entirely understandable that critics yearning for a return to form that never materialised might have fooled themselves into imagining that his latest lacklustre potboiler is deserving of comparison to his earlier works. Now, though, the happy news is that Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, is a definite improvement. How good is it? Well, it’s good; it’s quite good; repeat viewings and the fullness of time might reveal that it’s very good. It’s not a masterpiece, it’s not great, but it’s good; and that, given Allen’s recent form, is a minor miracle in itself, offering succour to those of us who still hold Woody Allen dear. We now have what genuinely feels like ‘a Woody Allen film’ again. It’s not his best since Match Point, it’s his best since Crimes and Misdemeanours: a fluid, contemporary-feeling, character-driven parable of social mobility, nervous breakdown, identity crisis, and familial dysfunction.
The plot takes its thematic cue from the financial crisis, and particularly the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal, while some of its structure and tone derive from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with Cate Blanchett (who has played Blanche DuBois onstage) giving a strident, Oscar-baiting performance that lingers, tantalisingly, just this side of hysteria. Jasmine, a displaced Park Avenue socialite whose adulterous fraudster husband (Alec Baldwin, flawless if a trifle underused) has gone to jail, leaving her destitute (yet still inclined to fly first class) and compelled to seek refuge with her markedly less high falutin’ sister (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Subsisting on vodka, Xanax, and haughty narcissism, Jasmine is given to dissociative monologues and pronouncements such as “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming”. (Prediction time: the “tip big, boys” Chuck E Cheese monologue will be the clip they play at the Oscars.)
Blanchett’s Jasmine is great fun to watch, but — despite her former life of pampered wealth, haute couture, and social climbing — we do worry for her; when she gets involved with a smarmy would-be Congressman (the sort of guy who is au fait with Chanel accessories, and apt to take ladies to “his favourite jeweller”), we can’t help but feel mounting anxiety. Something is bound to go wrong, presumably around the point where Jasmine opts to admit the details of her recent past, thereby exposing herself as the perfect woman for a nascent politician to run a million miles from. In her fiercer moments, Blanchett recalls Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives (Interestingly, Davis gave us a blast of Blanche Dubois’s “kindness of strangers” speech in Celebrity, back in 1998. And of course, Allen himself lapsed into a camp Vivien Leigh impression during a drug-induced fugue in Sleeper. Woody loves to recycle.)
Sometimes, Blanchett’s glassy-eyed look and emphatic jaw movements even suggest Richard E Grant’s incendiary performance in ‘Withnail and I’. It would be wrong to imply that this is a one-woman show, though: the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Sally Hawkins, in particular, providing welcome humour and warm-hearted insouciance. That said, Blanchett’s riveting performance is the core of the film, her perfectly judged blend of astringent vulnerability succeeding in eliciting amusement, revulsion, and, ultimately, sympathy. The Oscar statuette surely awaits.
There are resonances with earlier Allen films: Blanchett is told her mind is “a million miles away”, aspires to interior decorating, and gets a job as receptionist for a dentist, Dr Flicker, who shares his name with the doctor to whom the young Alvy Singer confided his fears that “the universe is expanding” in Annie Hall. Some familiar lines and tropes clunkily recur, but the film never feels like a re-tread. This is a genuine, freshly-minted Woody Allen film, and offers the hope that he could do it again.
“There is no greater sorrow,” wrote Dante Alighieri, “than to recall happiness in times of misery”. For fans of Woody Allen, recalling the great man’s glory days from the perspective of these miserable, post-Millennial times, that sense of sorrow has been all too apparent. This means that revisiting Woody’s greatest films could potentially be, at best, a bittersweet experience. Blue Jasmine may not be capable of competing with Allen’s classic mid-period works, but it takes the sting out of comparing Allen’s recent output with his greatest creative successes.
Interviewed on the occasion of his great hero Ingmar Bergman’s death, Woody had this to say regarding the saturnine Swede: “I think his films have eternal relevance, because they deal with the difficulty of personal relationships and lack of communication between people and religious aspirations and mortality, existential themes that will be relevant a thousand years from now. When many of the things that are successful and trendy today will have been long relegated to musty-looking antiques, his stuff will still be great.” Something similar might be said about Woody Allen. Yes, he did decline; but it behooves us to acknowledge the height from which he had to fall. His back catalogue is as valuable as that of any post-Golden Age filmmaker.
In the opening monologue from Annie Hall, Woody told us that he expected “to get better as I get older”. Well, he didn’t really ever get any better, and recently he’s been much worse than many of us might ever have imagined he could be. But Blue Jasmine has none of the negative aspects that have marred his recent films and thus, weirdly enough, feels very little like a ‘late period Woody Allen film’ at all. It also offers at least a hint at what film historian David Thomson had in mind when he suggested that if Allen “could be persuaded to quit his own films as an actor and to work more sparingly, with unmistakable lead actors (as opposed to a stock company of guest shots), then there is still a chance that he could create something close to gravity.” If you were looking for just one word to sum up the quality with which Cate Blanchett’s performance imbues Blue Jasmine, you could do much worse than settle on ‘gravity’. That’s not the kind of ‘gravity’ that gets Oscar-nominated, mind you, but it’s the sort that means a lot more to us down here on Earth.
“You have to have a little faith in people”, Mariel Hemmingway tells Woody at the end of Manhattan. For those of us whose long-held belief in Woody Allen was beginning to waver, Blue Jasmine goes some way towards restoring our faith. Against the odds, and late in the game, Woody has hit a home run. He actually has returned to form, this time. Let’s hope he’s back to stay.