Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Blue Jasmine (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Coming up with a story for a movie every year for nearly forty-five years is enough to tax even the most gifted idea man, so it's no wonder Woody Allen has borrowed some from time to time. If anything, he's proven himself to be quite gifted at adaptation. Stardust Memories was a pleasantly sardonic recreation of Fellini's 8 1/2, and Match Point was a pointedly severe vision of George Stevens' brilliant 1951 melodrama A Place in the Sun. That he's able to borrow so heavily without ever betraying his trademark style - or without crediting anyone else on his screenplay - is another testament to just how brilliant a screenwriter and filmmaker Woody is. Blue Jasmine has pretty heavy illusions to the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire in both theme and structure, but Woody is able to take the baroque Williams and translate it in that lovably simplistic Woody way. The result is his best film since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown.

The film stars Cate Blanchett as the titular Jasmine, a classic Blanche DuBois figure, whose pristine Park Avenue fantasy life is destroyed when her investor husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), is exposed by the FBI to be a crook and a thief, and all of their belongings are seized. With Hal in prison, and her luxurious Manhattan home taken away, Jasmine must move across the country to San Francisco to stay with her blue collar sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is a mess of nerves. Both her and Ginger were adopted, which explains the stunning difference in their personalities and lifestyles. The only reason Jasmine even considers staying with Ginger is because she suffered a nervous breakdown and was found talking to herself in the street. This is the first time Blanchett has ever worked with Woody Allen, and Woody gives her plenty of scenes to chew on.

In San Francisco, Jasmine immediately clashes with Ginger, her two sons and her loudmouth boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). To Jasmine, Chili is just another in a tradition of unsophisticated losers that Ginger finds herself in relationships with. Jasmine has interest in finding a job and then maybe going back to school, but Chili is constantly grilling her on when she's planning on leaving Ginger's place. Ginger and Chili have plans to live together, and Jasmine's getting in the way. She could care less about Chili's inquisitions, and Chili could care less for Jasmine frequently reminding him and Ginger how unglamorous their life is. Jasmine is only a few years removed from a brand new piece of jewelry every week and hosting high end dinner parties; adjusting to sleeping on the couch in Ginger's one-bedroom apartment isn't the easiest tradition. She's so frazzled that she thinks she needs to take computer classes just to use the internet. It's only because she's so beautiful that she's able to get a job as a receptionist for a seedy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The film's structure moves around like a novel. The film flashes back to Jasmine's glamorous life with Hal often but intermittently, playing out as if they'e the actual memories playing themselves out in Jasmine's mind. We see how Hal manipulated her with material possessions while secretly cheating on her with numerous women. We see how easily Jasmine found it to look the other way. We see how Hal's misdeeds effected Ginger and her then husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), and how it effected the disintegration of that marriage as well. The moments are chosen carefully and the transitions are so fluid, making Blue Jasmine one of the best paced Woody Allen movies I've ever seen. For one of the few times, there is no Woody surrogate to keep the story in neutral. The film's as erratic as Jasmine herself, documenting her inability to stay in the present. Her breakdown is meticulous and gradual, with Woody and Blanchett smart to show every step.

The best Woody film to compare it to would probably 1988's Another Woman, which was Woody at his most Bergmanesque. Both film's track a woman's inability to break away from the past and how it effects their lives. In Another Woman, Gena Rowlands' mid-life crisis was gently told, her personal strife quietly heartbreaking. In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett is a tempest, a tribute to "big acting". I'm not quite sure I've ever seen a performance in a Woody Allen film quite like it. She's regal, beautifully dressed throughout, but always a few steps away from a damning scowl. Jasmine deludes herself constantly, especially when she meets a man named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). Dwight is a widower who has dreams of running for office, and Jasmine believes that she can patch together a facade using various lies to win her way into his heart. Perhaps, she can even be his place-holding politician's wife.

If Blanchett's Jasmine is Blanche DuBois, then Andrew Dice Clay's lumbering Augie is the Stanley Kowalski of the story. Clay, in all of his Brooklyn grease ball glory, only has a handful of scenes, but proves up to the challenge, able to give the condescending Jasmine one last devastating blow before all things are over. To continue the film's theme of casting New York comedians, there's also a small appearance by Louis CK as Al, a sound engineer that meets Ginger at a party. When Jasmine convinces Ginger that she's better than her blue-collar life and better than Chili, Ginger runs into Al's arms after meeting him at a high-end party. Altogether, Hal, Augie, Chili and Al are several different representations of the different kinds of monsters that men can be, holding the emotions of women hostage as they pine desperately. They're all some version of Stanley.

Woody's comment on corporate crime here is a bit superficial, and there are moments when Jasmine unwisely tries to outdo Streetcar for melodrama. But this is a terrific movie, led by one of the strongest lead performances of the year. Blanchett sticks out because of her ability to break free of the coating so many actors find themselves in when trying to create that Woody style. Sean Penn in the painfully under-watched Sweet and Lowdown is another example of this. They took characters that were crafted by Woody and transferred them into something that was their own. I know this sounds like something that actors are supposed to do, but it's a rare occasion with this legendary filmmaker. Penn was granted an Oscar nomination for his performance, and it'd be a shame if Blanchett isn't given the same thing.

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