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I can’t imagine I’m alone in finding something suspect about Woody Allen’s return to critical and popular favor. The murmurings of decline that followed upon the director’s efforts a decade ago have given way over the last few years to newfound praise and commercial success, beginning with Match Point (2005), on through the extended travelogue of Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), and To Rome with Love (2012). And yet, Allen’s ascent out of the ashes of critical—not to mention personal—disrepute is hard to fathom given the evidence of his recent films alone. Match Point was largely a rehashing of earlier plotlines, and the other European adventures, though possessed of a certain vividness and Frommer’s-like beauty, can hardly be credited with much in the way of narrative or psychological plausibility.

Blue Jasmine, Allen’s latest film, has critics once more outdoing each other in their plaudits. The New Yorker echoed many in hailing it the “strongest, most resonant movie Woody Allen has made in years,” while The New Republic went so far as to judge it“The Best Film Woody Allen’s Ever Made,” arguing that in the character of Jasmine, Allen has finally “given us someone we will never forget.”

But such assessments, in their rush to proclaim the new, have a way of obscuring the old. Who among the director’s admirers, or even casual observers, can really forgetthe “Woody Allen” character, in its various iterations, from Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992).(The list could be even longer.) It is impossible to imagine these films of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties without recalling Allen’s trademark alter ego: the self-afflicted New York nebbish in perpetual erotic and verbal overdrive. So much so that in the half-dozen or so of his movies from this period that do not feature the director as an actor, such as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)—arguably the best among them—his absence feels conspicuous.

It is, I would argue, Allen’s famous onscreen persona that will prove his most memorable creation and that made possible his initial transition, some fifty years ago, from stand-up writer and performer to one of America’s most celebrated actor-directors. The transition was not always as smooth as Allen’s savant-like facility might now suggest. His earliest work, like Take the Money and Run (1969) or Bananas (1971), although undeniably funny, exudes a near-manic aura of slapstick and risks triviality in its insistent reliance on one-liners.

Against this background, the humanizing sensibility of Annie Hall was a significant breakthrough. The film’s protagonist, Alvy Singer, is less circumscribed by his creator’s desire for laughs, or the conventions of comedic form. There is a real candor and tenderness in his relationship with Annie, imbued as it is with the persuasive rapport between Allen and his co-star (and former lover) Diane Keaton. At the same time, Alvy doubles as a commentator on the ongoing narrative with his frequent interpolations and panicked asides, as if reaching out toward the audience. Alvy’s tendency to disrupt the illusory reality of the film adds to our sense of its intimacy. But it also suggests something about Allen’s cinematic values: his eschewing of verisimilitude and his willingness to court formlessness, even internal disorder, in his work.

Indeed, Allen’s best films are animated by a spirit of contradiction, summed up in the Borscht Belt joke made at the beginning of Annie Hall: “The food in this place is really terrible … and such small portions.” Life is too miserable but also too short. Allen’s films brook no certainties, save for their characters’ rueful awareness of the certainty of death. A tragicomic disparity everywhere abounds. Consider, most obviously, the contrast between the fluttery, archly-goyish beauties (portrayed by Keaton, throughout the Seventies, and by Mia Farrow in the Eighties and early Nineties) won and lost by Allen’s incarnated schlemiels. Consider, too, the predatory bawdiness of Allen’s cowed nice guys. Or, finally, the nature of their despairing attachment to their neurotic selves: though they lament their shortcomings to everyone in sight—friends, girlfriends, therapists—Allen’s characters rarely, if ever, seem willing to alter anything about their lives. Yet it is precisely their emotional intransigence that propels the director’s vision of human inertia—his verbally frenzied, hyper-gesticulating, almost kinetic account of the condition of being stuck.

Allen’s films proclaim the futility of self-awareness, on the one hand, and the calamity of self-ignorance, on the other. (The macho men, blowhards and hucksters, whom his own characters typically half envy and half despise, form a kind of negative homage to the unexamined life.) The resulting impasse has led critics over the years to accuse the director of complacency and even “nihilism”—as Allan Bloom put it in one of the unlikelier broadsides from The Closing of the American Mind. These critics take particular issue with the pseudo-insight and the narcissistic disavowals of Allen’s “confessional” characters. But it seems questionable to tax Allen with the limitations of his alter egos. For instance, the fact that in his films death is so often a punch line does not necessarily imply Allen’s refusal of seriousness. Rather, it tells us something about the self-opposing consciousness of his characters, who refuse to acknowledge what at some level they already know. Such objections to Allen’s work neglect—beyond the obvious point that he is an entertainer, not an ethicist—his own ironic distancing from his characters’ deflating jokiness.

Allen’s narratives remain divided, too, about the outer worlds they describe, as is evident in their simultaneous glorification and parody of the intellectual and therapy cultures of New York. The various references to Gershwin, Dostoyevsky, Freud and Flaubert are fond testaments to the director’s genuine intellectual curiosity, but also occasions to make jokes at the expense of the overeducated. Think of Alvy Singer chiding his wife, as she identifies academic department heads at a dinner party, “two more Chairs, they got a dining room set”; or Zelig, the “human chameleon,” in his guise as a learned psychiatrist, declaiming, “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”

Similarly, Allen’s more successful forays into a starker, Bergman-inspired realm of drama retain his distinctly mottled vision: the bleakness shot through with antic indulgence. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, a parable of immorality and injustice unfolds through the experience of the stately doctor, who gets away with murder and prospers despite his guilt, along with the risible plight of the luckless, kvetching filmmaker played by Allen himself.

The classic Woody Allen films possess something of the anxious intensity of youth (and a lot of the tormented eroticism of adolescence). But while the older director’s energy has certainly kept up—he continues to release, on average, a new film every year—a good deal of his early fervor has not. One gets the impression at times that for Allen filmmaking has become a kind of make-work, prized for its reflexive busyness above all. (Allen himself tends to reinforce this impression in interviews, as when he recently described directing as “a great distraction from the real agonies of the world.”) It is hardly surprising, then, that many of his later offerings have had a slighter, somewhat derivative air. In the much-maligned Anything Else (2003), for example, the whole image of New York and its highbrow inhabitants appeared out-of-touch and oddly passé. The film’s struggling young comedian lives in a beautiful Upper East Side walk-up and prattles on endlessly about psychoanalysis. The details were all wrong.

In light of this, it is easier to understand why viewers welcomed Allen’s Zelig-like transformation into an international director—his escape into a Europe of his own making. Yet, the films of the last decade also come through as less personally invested, their success increasingly dependent on the brilliance of Allen’s cinematographers and carefully chosen actors. Match Point was most noteworthy for not seeming like a Woody Allen movie at all, despite recycling the basic plot line of Crimes and Misdemeanors. And the era-spanning, crowd-pleasing cultural history of Midnight in Paris (his highest grossing film in 25 years) represented a further turn away from urban alienation. Such films lack the endearingly intimate, open-ended quality that once made you feel as though you were watching Alvy Singer and Annie Hall in the process of thinking through their turmoil. Instead of the fumbling disunities that defined his early work, we are now presented with a more polished and compact—but also more sealed-off—vision.

Blue Jasmine fits comfortably into this narrowed universe. Although the film dramatizes perils that have long preoccupied the director—namely, self-ignorance and purposelessness—it shares little of the range or insight of Allen’s best work. Jasmine, a cross between Ruth Madoff and Blanche Dubois, is a former Manhattan socialite still reeling from the criminal indictment and jailhouse suicide of her financier husband. In flight from her recent past, she decides to move to her sister’s apartment in San Francisco, and there remake herself.

Through flashbacks to her former life, we come to learn that Jasmine’s engagement with reality has been highly selective from the start. For years, she had been the blithe beneficiary of her husband’s fortune, at one point publicly priding herself on never asking any questions. It is only after Jasmine finally awakens to the fact of his infidelity and discovers that she too has been a victim of his scheming that she springs into action and alerts the police. Newly adrift in San Francisco, Jasmine holds fast to her two remaining commodities: beauty and cunning. But when a last-ditch attempt to bamboozle a wealthy diplomat into marriage falls apart, she plummets fully into the throes of psychosis. As she puts it: “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”

Cate Blanchett ruthlessly exposes Jasmine’s stubborn narcissism and pill-popping, heavy-drinking fury, in a performance that has already been proclaimed Oscar-worthy. Yet it remains just that: a “performance.” To be fair, this may be unavoidable, given the opaqueness of the character as Allen has written it. The film, for example,dangles the question of Jasmine’s criminal culpability, without illuminating what drew her so helplessly into a life of empty luxury to begin with. Rather than creating a fully dimensional human presence, Allen takes for granted the authority of Jasmine’s cardboard anguish, allowing his film to devolve into a kind of tragic burlesque.

The makings of a richer work lie in the relationship between the sisters: Jasmine, the glamorous, snobbish, delusional sister and Ginger (played by the British actress, Sally Hawkins), the plainspoken, plainer-looking sister who tries to find satisfaction within more limited means. In earlier films, most notably in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen has evoked the strained yet enduring affection between siblings with poignancy. But while Blue Jasmine provides the ground for another such exploration, it does not deliver. A large part of the problem is that the common-sense pragmatism we are led to initially expect from Ginger is belied by her exaggerated naiveté throughout the film. Her relationship with a boozing, hysterically devoted mechanic feels like another species of the absurd. Instead of helping to counterbalance the force of Jasmine’s misery, the film’s threadbare, cartoonish supporting characters rarely rise above the level of stage props.

These limitations become even more telling when compared to the recent work of another aging wonder, the filmmaker Mike Leigh. (The comparison practically invites itself, given the casting of Hawkins, a Leigh mainstay, whose character and surroundings in Blue Jasmine seem to have been plucked from one of the British director’s sagas of working class fortitude.) Like Allen, Leigh in his last two films Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010), does not flinch from depicting extreme human misery. But unlike Blue Jasmine, his films are also distinguished by the warm air of intimacy they bring to their portrayals of ordinary happiness. Leigh turns Tolstoy’s famous adage about the similarity of all happy families on its head, by making the contented life a matter of irreducible interest and variety. Witness Sally Hawkins’s spirited schoolteacher in Happy Go-Lucky,and the powerful, almost speechless affinity between the aging couple of Another Year.

There has never been much place for the drama of ordinary happiness, however, in Allen’s guilt-ridden, disabused film world. Yet for all its ready-at-hand disaffection, his best work remains playfully ironic, rather than solemn in tone. His stand-in characters are not models of fashionable angst—as both his admirers and detractors have sometimes made them out to be. On the contrary, their morbid compulsions form the centerpiece of Allen’s comedy of neurotic errors. It is only when the director forfeits levity for solemnity and deprives the films themselves of pleasure, as he does in Blue Jasmine, that he loses his footing. And we, in turn, sense a stony remove at the heart of his venture.

In place of laugher, Blue Jasmine offers the voyeuristic allure of one-percenter dysfunction. Allen’s camera tracks the lives of the wealthy with a near-erotic absorption, lavishing attention upon Jasmine’s jewelry and clothing, as well as the Park Avenue apartments and Hamptons mansions of the couple and their friends. At the same time, the director appears to relish—as, presumably, his audience does along with him—the spectacle of the wealthy being brought to their knees. Part aestheticized romance and part revenge fantasy, the film’s portrayal of its well-heeled characters is both too indulgent and too cruel. Yet unlike the telling disparities of his best work, the tensions underlying Blue Jasmine reveal nothing more than an elementary moral confusion—an enchantment with and devaluation of consumerist culture, at one and the same time.

None of this, of course, has prevented the film from bolstering Allen’s refurbished reputation, or the efforts of critics bent on shaping his career into a melodrama with a Hollywood ending of its own: the improbable rise, the scandalized fall from grace, the redeeming return to form. Then again, perhaps the current embrace of Allen’s films says less about the director and his work than about our own nostalgia for a cultural medium that has lost much of its former appeal (a consequence of the rise of social media and online streaming, as well as the anemic nature of most high-budget productions). Has there ever seemed a more welcome moment for the reliable familiarity of a new Woody Allen film than in these amorphous, unreliable cultural times?

Whatever the case, it is somehow fitting that Allen, the comedian of conflict, should produce conflicted feelings in certain moviegoers. If some of us chafe at the habituated routine of his filmmaking and question the quality of his recent efforts, we still can’t help being awed by the persistence of his creative drive and resourcefulness. Old age has clearly not slowed the director down. But has it improved him? It may still be too soon to tell.

 

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