Friday, August 16, 2013

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Jasmine), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Alec Baldwin (Hal), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Louis C.K. (Al), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Flicker), Alden Ehrenreich (Danny).

When Woody Allen is at his best – and in Blue Jasmine, he is – he has an ability that few of writers/directors have – and that is to make some old, feel fresh and original. You would have to have no knowledge of Tennessee Williams’ great play A Streetcar Named Desire not to recognize that Allen’s main character in this movie is clearly a version of Blanche DuBois – the Southern Belle driven to insanity by her animalistic brother-in-law Stanley. Allen doesn’t hide his influences – he never has – and so one could amuse themselves while watching Blue Jasmine in playing “spot the reference” in relation to Streetcar. But it would a shame to spend all of your time watching this wonderful movie doing that – because Allen has crafted one of his best recent films in Blue Jasmine, and created one of his best characters in Jasmine, and surrounded her with other interesting characters. He has also – for the first time since Match Point (2005) and its lesser known (and criminally underrated) flip side Cassandra’s Dream (2007) made an incisive study in class. For years, Allen was accused (not incorrectly) of ignoring class altogether in studying his upper class, Upper East Side characters, that at times made Allen seem like he was doing little other than navel gaze. But Blue Jasmine – along with those other two films – proves that when he wants to, Allen can take issue of class very seriously.

The movie stars Cate Blanchatt, in what will surely be one of the performances of the year, as Jasmine. She spent years married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), who she’s called a “financial genius”, who was really just a Bernie Madoff-clone. He was arrested, and killed himself in jail, and now she’s broke. She has no skills, because she’s spent her entire adult life shopping and arranging luncheons. She moves to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who Jasmine virtually ignored when she was rich - but Hal didn’t – convincing her and her then husband Augie (a surprisingly great Andrew Dice Clay) to invest their lottery winnings with him. Jasmine is horrified when she arrives at Ginger’s apartment – where she lives with her two kids – which is cramped by her standards (but nicer than some of the places I’ve lived in). She looks down on Ginger, her kids, and her new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). She wants to do something “substantial” – although she has no idea what that is. Oh, and she’s already had a nervous breakdown when she was caught talking to herself on the street – something she is still doing.

The movie flashes back and forth between the past and the present. In the past, we see Jasmine in her sheltered life with Hal – when first she’s on top of the world, and then it everything starts to fall apart. In the present, she’s trying to rebuild her life – although she has no real skills, other than self-delusion. The movie would not work at all if Cate Blanchatt wasn’t as terrific as she is as Jasmine – a woman who willfully ignored all the signs that her husband was a scam artist, and a cheat in other ways, and even after her fall from grace, sees herself as a more of a victim than anyone else. She complains about the government taking her money, she looks down her nose at everyone around her, lectures everyone on how to live their life, and what to do when you’re extraordinarily wealthy, and won’t admit to anyone, least of all herself, the situation she is in. Blanchatt makes Jasmine a brittle, self-deluded, pill popping, martini drinking mess – hardly a sympathetic character, but a human one. It would have been easy for Blanchatt – and Allen – to simply mock this woman, but they don’t do that. They – and we – may not like Jasmine, but she is a complete person on screen.

This isn’t to say Blanchatt and Allen aren’t hard on Jasmine – they are certainly harder on her than Williams was on Blanche DuBois, who could at least put some of the blame on Stanley for her mental breakdown. Jasmine has no such excuse, as she only has herself to blame. Baldwin’s Hal is all surface charm – and everyone else sees through him before she finally does. Allen toys with the audience by giving us a few plausible potential Stanley’s in the cast – in the form of Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, and her current lover Chili – but both ultimately are good guys. They may have a temper (Jasmine says that Augie used to beat Ginger, but given her unreliability as a narrator, and everything we see of him in the movie, I doubt that’s the case, and although Chili does get angry at times, he never hits anyone, and is at heart a big softie). When she finally does move on from Hal, and starts dating Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), whose ultimate rejection of her is the last straw holding together her mental stability, you can hardly blame him for doing what he does – she did, in fact, do nothing but lie to him. The only outright horrible male character she meets is Michael Stuhlberg’s pathetic, handsy dentist who is for a brief period of time her boss – and even that never comes close to rising to the level of Stanley.

Blue Jasmine however is more than just the Cate Blanchatt show – although she is certainly the best thing in it. Sally Hawkins gives a wonderful performance as the sweetly na├»ve Ginger – a woman who almost allows Jasmine to screw everything up for her, before she comes to her senses. I also quite like Louis C.K. playing a more subdued version of his comic persona, as Al, the guy who Ginger briefly thinks is a better match for her. I’ve already said Andrew Dice Clay is excellent as Augie – and he really is.

Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s best recent efforts. Sometimes, Allen does seem to be living life inside of a bubble – but this time, he really has taken a look around him. Blue Jasmine is an excellent movie not just because he has created a wonderful character in Jasmine, and Cate Blanchatt delivers a great performance – but because the movie really does feel grounded in the economic reality we now live in. Allen is a master filmmaker who has steadily churned out a movie a year for more than 40 years now. Sometimes we get a stinker like last year’s To Rome with Love – but as long as he follows those up with a movie as good as Blue Jasmine, I’ll continue to look forward to everything he does.

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