Woody Allen’s San Francisco

Merrick Morton © 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The new film “Blue Jasmine” adds another city to the icon’s repertoire.

Would American filmmakers please return to America? We know about the tax breaks that come with shooting abroad, that the international market is where it’s at in terms of box office, that the Europeans have the hottest film festivals, but still—she’s feeling a little ignored, your homeland, as a setting, a symbol, a source of myth. John Ford filmed so many movies in Monument Valley that they renamed it John Ford Country. Between them, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee cut up New York so finely, you could organize your dating life around their movies:

“How about we meet in front of that cathedral on Mulberry Street? You know, the one where Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro have their heart-to-heart in Mean Streets.

“And De Niro lies down on the gravestone?”

“You got it.”

“Okay. Where do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know…maybe that pizzeria on Bleecker?”

“The one where Mariel Hemingway told Woody Allen she was leaving to go study in London?”

“That’s the one.”

“See you there at eight.”

What do you kids think we all did before Google?

You release a film these days and it’s more likely to be set on a) planet Krypton, b) a postapocalyptic Earth populated only by Tom Cruise or Will Smith or c) a pre-apocalyptic Earth awaiting its dustup with aliens, zombies or giant lizards in a funky mood. Even the tonier auteurs can’t get out of the old neighborhoods fast enough: Darren Aronofsky made one movie in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach (Requiem for a Dream) and then skedaddled. Quentin Tarantino made three glorious L.A. movies (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) before jetting off into the movie-genre-verse and making us all hungry for a good burger. Texas native Wes Anderson was just in Berlin shooting his upcoming tribute to the French New Wave, The Grand Budapest Hotel. And has anyone even heard of David Fincher’s Denver or Spike Jonze’s Maryland? A movie set squarely in the American hinterland, like Winter’s Bone (the Ozarks) or Beasts of the Southern Wild (the Louisiana bayou), strikes audiences as impossibly exotic these days, like the latest novel by Gabriel García Márquez. That’s how unfamiliar much of America feels to us right now: It feels magic realist.

So here’s the good news: After sending postcards home from Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), London (Match Point; Scoop; Cassandra’s Dream; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), Paris (Midnight in Paris) and Italy (To Rome with Love), Woody Allen has, for his new movie, returned to U.S. soil. Release the ticker tape and bunting! Nobody could begrudge Allen his European vacation, which seemed to bring out the boulevardier spirit in the usually sunlight-averse filmmaker, even if there were those who complained he trafficked in intercontinental cliché, providing a flyby of over-familiar landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, Hyde Park, the Colosseum, Penélope Cruz’s bust, Roberto Benigni’s grin. The clichés bucked him up—gave his filmmaking a lift.

Allen’s new film, Blue Jasmine, which comes out in July, returns to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which he has long made his own, but also ventures deep into a strange, topsy-turvy place where people have to walk uphill to get to their shrinks, called San Francisco. Given Allen’s much-publicized aversion to the West Coast—“I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he once quipped of Los Angeles in Annie Hall—you could be forgiven for thinking, Here we go, a few astrologist gags, some dated jabs at the counterculture, all laced with patchouli oil. But the results feel much more tethered to contemporary reality than that.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a Park Avenue socialite who can barely see the nose in front of her face, let alone the machinations of her financier husband (Alec Baldwin). When he is imprisoned for fraud, Jasmine is ejected from their townhouse. Clutching her Birkin bag in one hand and what remains of her illusions in the other, she seeks refuge with her estranged sister (Sally Hawkins), a grocery bagger who lives in a small apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. So it’s out with the polo matches and dinners at Le Cirque and in with the cheap plonk and boyfriends played by Louis C.K. and Bobby Cannavale, resplendent in his tie-dyed vest and white leather belt.

What we have, in other words, is the material for one of those culture-clash comedies that have drawn Allen since he penned the short story “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists” back in 1978 (“Mrs. Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth…. I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew!”) and so many films since, from Bullets Over Broadway to Mighty Aphrodite. Interestingly, he doesn’t show much interest in pushing the idea toward the broad comedy that might have unfurled; instead he sharpens his nib and, together with a wonderfully soused and self-deceiving performance from a Blanche-like Blanchett, fashions a sanguine study of class and wealth in post–Bernie Madoff America.

Allen has come home, all right. The bad news is he doesn’t find much to delight him for long. Blue Jasmine is one of his minor-key works, if unusually well-crafted, particularly after the loose-fitting dramaturgy of his European films, which gave the impression of having been roughed out on the back of a serviette, like a Picasso sketch, to pay for a long and pleasurable lunch on the Croisette. But he’s returned with his senses heightened, keen-eyed and alert. It is, after all, one of the chief benefits of travel: the dislocated familiarity that comes with returning home only to find, with a mixture of pleasure and disappointment, that things are exactly as we left them, and thereby to know that we are the ones who have changed.

New York Stories

Why no Woody Allen fan needs Google Maps.

“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” —Alan Alda, pontificating in Crimes and Misdemeanors, on 113th St. and Riverside Dr.

“I can’t believe I said that about the Guggenheim. My stupid little roller-skating joke.” —Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, 1071 Fifth Ave.

“I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.” —Allen to Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery, outside Lincoln Center

“Most of us...need the eggs.” —Allen as he watches Keaton walk away at the end of Annie Hall, on 63rd St. and Columbus Ave.

Allen catches up with Mia Farrow in front of the Carnegie Deli, in the last shot of Broadway Danny Rose, at 854 Seventh Ave.

Allen and Keaton sit on a Sutton Place bench at dawn in front of the 59th Street Bridge.

Alec Baldwin, as a Madoffian fraudster, is cuffed by the FBI on Park Avenue, in the mid 50s, in Blue Jasmine.

“He said the Belasco, not the Morosco, you cementhead!” —Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway, at Sixth Ave. and 44th St.

John’s Pizzeria, where Mariel Hemingway tells Allen she’s moving to London in Manhattan, at 278 Bleecker St.

“Love is too weak a word for the way I feel—I lurve you.” —Allen to Keaton in Annie Hall, by the Brooklyn Bridge