The curse of the Woody Allen brand
A woman is sexually harassed by her employer. The situation escalates until it’s approaching the level of attempted rape. The woman struggles to free herself, even though she knows that this may cause her to lose her job, a job that she needs badly. She’s vulnerable. Every corner stone in her life has crumbled over the last year. She has lost her husband, her money, her former status position in society and her stepson. And she’s lost herself. At this point she’s adrift, out of control in a sea of self-contempt, entitlement, alcohol and shady meds. We’re witnessing a descent into madness.
The scene comes from Woody Allen’s latest movie, Blue Jasmine. To say that I felt uncomfortable watching it would be an understatement. As unpleasant as this woman was, I couldn’t help pitying her. Stripped from the masques and manners of an upper-class lady, all that remained was fear and the loneliness that comes with it. Cate Blanchett was portraying a woman so miserable that she could put up a fight with Elisabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf about being the most tragic wreck.
Then I heard the laughter. Someone in the audience thought this was funny. Actually quite a few people did. They were laughing out loud as if they’d just seen something hilarious.
I was baffled. Apparently there were different ideas about what currently was going on on the screen. They didn’t see the tragedy I saw. They saw a Woody Allen movie. And in their world this meant that the movie must be funny, no matter what.
A strong brand
This is the disadvantage when a filmmaker has established himself with a certain profile. There are benefits in having a strong trademark. People know who you are and those who like you will come to every movie you make no matter what. But they’ll also read things into your work that just aren’t there, since they watch it filtered through the tainted glass of expectations.
Woody Allen has actually made several dark movies in the past, Cassandra’s Dream the most recent example (which I loved as opposed to most other people). But no one seems to take any notice of this. Ask people for their associations to the name “Woody Allen” and I bet they’ll come up with labels such as “funny”, “New York” and “Jewish”.
If Woody Allen makes a movie about a woman, she can be every so miserable; they’ll still assume that she’s a clown character. A sad clown, admittedly, but yet a clown.
Apparently they hold on to the idea that this was a comedy as long as they could. They never gave up hope that there would be some huge pay-off in the end, something that took the edge of everything they had seen up to this point. And when it turned out that there wasn’t such a thing, the disappointment kicked in. I heard several who grumbled about the end that they “didn’t get” as we left the theatre.
For my own part I had very little to complain about. While it’s hard to compare the movies since they’re vastly different, I think it’s a major step up from last year’s From Rome with Love as well as Midnight in Paris. Perhaps Allen is a little bit off mark in showing a believable working class home. Mike Leigh does that thing better. But Cate Blanchett is magnificent (when isn’t she?) and there were several other performances that I also liked a lot: Sally Hawkis, Alec Baldwin and Louis C.K to mention a few.
My only objection against the movie was about something that Allen could do very little to prevent: all those random laughter attacks from the audience. Sometimes they were so out of place that you wondered if someone had placed a Pez dispenser on the armrest.
Can the curse of Woody Allen’s trademark even be broken? I don’t know. But at least they should make it very clear when they market this movie that it’s not for fun and giggles. Perhaps it can prevent a laughter trigger happy people from watching it in a theatre.
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US 2013) My rating: 4/5