Hey, recyclers! Give a warm welcome to my friend Adam B., who will at some point be starting his own blog on gothic novels. In the meantime, enjoy his great guest review!
Knowing my love for A Streetcar Named Desire, Anne offered me a tip before I went to see Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine: I shouldn’t go expecting a remake or update of Streetcar or I would miss the movie. The trailer had prepared me for just such an update. Woman with upper-class pretensions and severe alcohol problem moves in with her working-class sister after losing her money and her marbles . . . wait a minute! And what worked me up to near-giddy excitement was that Cate Blanchett would be playing this version’s Blanche. During her run as Blanche in 2009 at the Kennedy Center, I was on a trip with my family in Massachusetts, fantasizing hopelessly about hopping a train to New York to see the show (assuming any tickets were still available).
Anne’s advice was good: Blue Jasmine is neither an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play nor an update of Elia Kazan’s film, though it does sample many memorable Streetcar elements. In retrospect, I feel like I should have known better. Streetcar is a tragedy about a collapse into insanity and a fierce psychosexual power struggle. Does that sound at all like a Woody Allen movie? Nevertheless, the movie is full of Streetcar analogues, and I feel comfortable talking about his movie with respect to its source.
Aside from the general lack of psychological complexity in Blue Jasmine, the differences of culture and character background set this movie far apart from Streetcar. Blanche DuBois grew up on Belle Rêve (“beautiful dream”) literally and figuratively: her plantation-home childhood swathed her in notions of Southern gentility and inherited class, leaving her unable to cope with her sister’s marriage, her family’s sordid history, and even her own sexuality. The image of the Old South she clings to determines her sense of self. Jasmine, on the other hand, an adopted child, seems almost to have come out of nowhere into a world where money buys class. Whatever identity she might have begun developing in college she aborted when a wealthy man swept her off her feet. Unlike Jay Gatsby, who pursued a money-based identity with vigor and purpose, Jasmine get hers passively, by association. Her attempt to “reinvent” herself as an interior designer is an ersatz gesture of self-definition by someone who never had a self. The reason she cracked up when her husband’s real estate scam is busted and her lifestyle destroyed is because she had nothing else to fall back upon: that lifestyle was her identity. In a way, this movie is about what could happen to someone like Ruth Madoff.
My problem with the movie is not that it isn’t as deep as Streetcar. Woody Allen has made several movies that are psychologically simple but charming and fun. Blue Jasmine’s screenplay is surprisingly bland, especially for him. The dialogue lacks his usual witty touch, and although he has a knack for making conventional characters his own, the fallen socialite Jasmine (as written) remains trite. This is a pity because Jasmine, surrounded by people pestering her about her husband’s disgrace and without any tenable plan for her life, gave him an opportunity to carry that neurosis he writes about so well to its extreme. It took me a little while to realize this, however, because Cate Blanchett’s performance so far transcends the script that I literally squirmed in my seat from the manic tension she generated on screen. Her performance is by far the best part of this movie and the only reason I will probably see it again. If someone eventually does decide to remake Streetcar, there will be no doubt about whom to cast as Blanche.
Blue Jasmine seems like it wants to be a black comedy, but it’s not intelligent enough to work as such. SPOILER ALERT: Allen even misses the opportunity for a satirical ending in which Jasmine gets away with deceiving her new fiancé (this movie’s Mitch) and marries back into her old life with a different husband. Given how Crimes and Misdemeanors unfolds, I was surprised that Allen opted for the Streetcar turn in which a man from Blanche’s past “ties a tin can to the tail of the kite,” leaving Jasmine to Blanche’s fate and the movie to a much less fitting conclusion. I don’t fault Allen for not remaking Streetcar, but it seems like he should have been more judicious about choosing what to keep and what to toss.