NEW YORK — Does Woody Allen have regrets?
His new film, "Blue Jasmine," amplifies the air of concentrated self-examination that has long been a hallmark of his work. Though marked by buoyant moments of wry humor, the film is devastating in its intense survey of a life in the free fall of mental and emotional collapse. Cate Blanchett gives a tour-de-force performance as a wealthy New Yorker who discovers that her husband has built their fortune through fraud. After losing everything, she winds up with her decidedly more downscale sister in San Francisco, left to sift through the remains of her life.
Opening July 26, "Blue Jasmine" finds Allen further exploring a thematic conceit that has been percolating through his recent movies since at least the dual stories of 2005's "Melinda and Melinda," as in film after film he has been pondering a series of existential what-ifs.
In 2010's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Josh Brolin played an unhappily married man who became obsessed with what his life would be like with a woman in the apartment across the way. In the 2011 smash hit "Midnight In Paris" — for which Allen won the Oscar for original screenplay, his fourth — Owen Wilson stepped from modern day into the Jazz Age, imagining it as better than his own time. In "To Rome With Love," Alec Baldwin played a man who seems to meet a younger version of himself in Jesse Eisenberg.
Whether in a comedic or dramatic mode, these films are all structured around a reflective, ruminative mood, as if Allen has been looking back on his celebrated, knotty life and examining the forks in the road.
"I would say, I've lived 77 years now, and there have been things in my life that I regret that if I could do over, I would do different," Allen said in a recent interview that found him in a warm mood on a cold, late-spring afternoon. "Many things that I think with the perspective of having done them and having time that I would do differently. Maybe even choice of profession. Many things.
"But I think if you ask anybody that's honest about it, there has to be a number of choices they've made in their life that they wished they'd made the other choice. They wished they had bought the house or didn't buy the house, or didn't marry the girl or did. So I have plenty of regrets. And I never trust people who say, 'I have no regrets. If I lived my life again, I'd do it exactly the same way.' I wouldn't."
Allen has worked for nearly 40 years in a modest suite of rooms on the ground floor of the type of politely upscale Upper East Side apartment building many know only from Woody Allen movies.
Off a bustling thoroughfare, past two doormen and down a tastefully appointed hallway, one finds a nondescript door with a small, unremarkable sign. Through that door is a rather cramped anteroom filled with cardboard boxes and a second, slightly shabbier door. Through there is a cluttered workroom with doors leading off in various directions. Somewhere behind there is Woody Allen. He is looking for a cough drop.
It is in this former bridge club that Allen casts his films and edits them, seeing to the unglamorous workaday details of moviemaking. He recalled when he once visited the offices of Martin Scorsese, just a few blocks away, "You would have thought that it was the law firm of Scorsese and John Foster Dulles" by comparison with his own "sleazy little operation." He is quick to add, "I really don't need anything more."
Allen has maintained a startling work rate, making in essence one film a year for going on 35 years. At times it can be frustrating to keep up with his output, and there can be something haphazard about his prolificacy. This may be why "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" struggles to make $3 million in the U.S. one year and "Midnight in Paris" brings in nearly $57 million the next.
Allen's relentless pace, his craftsman's regularity rob his films of the event feeling a new work by a Scorsese or Spielberg are often met with, as if he is purposefully trying to lower expectations. Films that seem undercooked on first glance gain resonance over time, while other films lose their initial impact. Though never to be counted out entirely, Allen makes it easy to overlook any single film for the ongoing rush. In a way, it can be as if he doesn't entirely get them all either.
"I don't know why they like one and not another," he said of the surprise audience response to "Midnight" compared with his other recent films. "If I could figure it out, I might be able to get rich."
"Blue Jasmine" is, by Allen's own speculation, less likely to find such a broad audience due to its serious, dramatic nature. The film's structure finds Blanchett's character reflecting upon moments from her past, looking for clues to her own downfall, creating a deep emotional resonance. She gives in some sense two performances, one as the fine society lady and the other as someone at moments akin to a babbling street crazy in a Chanel jacket.
The film also has Allen's typical deep bench of supporting performers, with strong turns by Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay. No character is quite as they first seem, some revealing themselves to be deeper and more emotionally sensitive while others turn out shallow and self-serving.
The in-built joke of casting the rough-hewn Clay in a heady Woody Allen film, and in a pivotal, dramatic role no less, was certainly not lost on the actor. Clay recalled that when his manager first let him know Allen had reached out, his response was, "Woody Allen's calling for me? That's the last guy I ever thought would call for me. I thought it was like an April Fool's joke."