Sunday, February 16, 2014

Blue Jasmine

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, Max Casella
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's somewhat ironic that Woody Allen's most tolerable film in years centers around an intolerable character. At least to the other characters. But to us she's compelling and even at points captivating. Observing the actions of the title character in Blue Jasmine is comparable to watching a train wreck. That's a change of pace since the most toxic element in any Woody Allen film is usually him, whether he's in front of the camera or not. He hasn't made what could be considered a truly great film in decades despite turning out one feature a year like clockwork. Sometimes it feels like he's making them just to make them and keep working even if he doesn't have anything important to say. More frustratingly, it's not like any of these films are awful, as that might be some indication he's really going for it. Instead, most have been mediocre or even occasionally forgettable.

Aside from a powerhouse lead performance of alarming proportions, it's tough to say Blue Jasmine necessarily breaks the Woody mold but it's definitely stronger and more interesting than Whatever Works, To Rome With Love and the overpraised Midnight in Paris. Coming from someone who far prefers him tackling drama, there's more than enough drama to spare here, while still offering a spattering of laughs, most of which are dark and uncomfortable. He's good at this stuff and should do character studies more often, even if this can't exactly be considered an "original screenplay" in any way, shape or form. There are direct sequels and remakes that have less in common with their source than this script does with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Luckily, it was probably due for an update anyway, so at least it's given a good one.      

Rich socialite Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) has recently fallen on hard times, as her former husband, New York financier Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) was sent to prison for fraud, forcing her to move to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Through flashbacks, we're given important glimpses of Jasmine's marriage to Hal and her relationship with Ginger and then husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), both of whom she looked down on at the time as lower class degenerates. Year later, Jasmine's attitude remains mostly the same even as Ginger has since moved on with a mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Battling her own history of mental illness and emotional instability, Jasmine wastes little time popping pills, drinking heavily, mocking her sister's lifestyle choices and insulting her friends. But the true horror comes when she actually has to go out and get a real job. It isn't until she meets and falls for wealthy, widowed diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) that she's given a fresh chance at happiness.

Complex in both conception and execution, the title character is the reason it all works. Part protagonist, part antagonist, Jasmine could have easily been written or performed as a cliche of upper class entitlement, or worse yet, a crazed sociopath. And while there will undoubtedly still be those who think she qualifies as both, Blanchett brings a lot more to it than that, despite it being the type of performance that couldn't be classified as subtle. Being sickened by Jasmine's actions is a given, but the actress forces us into believing she might actually have potential as a human being if she weren't so self-absorbed and superficial. That both she and Ginger were adopted is an important detail since they're so different no one would possibly believe they're sisters otherwise, which is an underlying (if not overlying) source of tension in their relationship. It's clear from their interactions Jasmine was always the favorite growing up and it's even more plainly obvious Ginger is only her sister when she needs something. And yet, frustratingly, Jasmine's observations that her sister is wasting her life and potential are spot on. She pretty much is.

Hawkins portrays an often clueless and naive woman who's settling in every aspect of her life, especially when it comes to romance. It's rare having a supporting character (especially a familiar type like the put upon sister) that's as well developed as the lead and Hawkins deserves much of that credit. Torn between the hot-tempered Chili and a guy named Al (Louis C.K.) who she meets at a party and carries on an affair, both alternately straddle the line between caring, sensitive guys and total losers. The truth probably resides somewhere in between, but the exuberant Cannavale is one of the best things in this and the thrill of seeing Louis C.K. in a Woody Allen movie, even in such a small dose, doesn't disappoint. It also really gets the mind racing about how great it would be if Louie were given the same opportunity as Larry David to carry his own Allen vehicle.

There have been raves for Andrew Dice Clay's performance and while he is surprisingly solid in a small, but pivotal role, I can't help but think much of that praise stems from the shock of not only seeing the controversial comic in a quality film, but managing to hold his own. Still, it's a casting masterstroke as Augie's very existence in the story serves as set-up for a huge, climactic scene in the third act where Jasmine's past indiscretions catch up with her. Baldwin's sleazy as ever as her lying, philandering, Madoff-like ex-husband, but it's Blanchett doing most of the work, devouring scenes left and right.

As heinous as Jasmine seems, the actress does seem to work up a considerable amount of empathy for her given her situation isn't one that naturally elicits much (if any) sympathy at all. By society's standards, she was on top of the world and used to living a certain lifestyle so it only makes sense she would break when it all comes crashing down. Her foray into the working world as a receptionist for an overexcited dentist (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) reveals almost as much about the character as it does Allen himself, who's been justifiably accused of being out of touch with the rest of society (an office without computers?) It's also interesting how the San Francisco setting feels and looks no different than the director's detours overseas to Paris or Rome. This shares the basic feel of every other recent Woody movie, but it's darker in tone and centered around a performance leagues ahead of what we're used to in his usual outings.

When we eventually learn the exact circumstances of her former husband's downfall, there's even more to talk about and Blanchett's work somehow seems even more intricate in retrospect. The worst thing that could happen to her is being teased with a shot at reclaiming the wealth and privilege she originally relished and still yearns for. For all her deception and shame to try to cover up her previous life, we still see how Sarsgaard's wealthy diplomat would fall for her class, beauty and sophistication, even as she unintentionally works as hard as possible to sabotage herself. She's the kind of person whose compliments even seem like backhanded insults.

It's difficult not to respect Allen for refusing to compromise by letting the character arrive at some sudden self-realization that would feel false for someone as emotionally unstable as she. Everything is particularly twisted and unpleasant, which comes as a relief from a director not exactly known for his risk taking in recent years. While there's nothing particularly surprising about Blue Jasmine aside from that and Blanchett's barn burning turn, it marks the first time in a while there are actually issues to contemplate and discuss coming out of a Woody Allen picture.                  

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