Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Woody Allen
2013 • 98 Minutes • 2.35:1 • United States
Color • English • Sony Pictures Classics

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alex Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Louis CK, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg
Writer: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe

Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.


Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's 2013 re-structuring of A Streetcar Named Desire, proves that the constantly working writer/director still has plenty left in the gas tank.  While some of his more recent films have failed to connect critically, the success of films like Midnight in Paris, Match Point and Blue Jasmine, more than make up for the shortcomings of other films.  

As mentioned, the similarities between  Jasmine and Streetcar can't be ignored, nor do I think, where they intended to be.  In this updated version, the titular Jasmine fills in for the Blanche Du Bois archetype. She has had a complete mental breakdown after her philandering husband committed suicide after being sent to prison when he was exposed as a corrupt financier.  Her wealth taken by the government, Jasmine moves out to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger, who it turns out was also left broke due to her and her now ex-husband investing in her brother-in-law's financial schemes.  Ginger, much like Streetcar's Stella, is romantically involved (though not married to) with a blue collar oaf by the name of Chilli, who is none too pleased about Jasmine's sudden intrusion into his life.  Slowly but surely, Jasmine's prospects start to look up when she begins to date an aspiring Congressman, who knows nothing about her past.

Cate Blanchett is the reason to watch this film. She gives an amazing performance that is sure to garner her attention during awards season.  While there are the obvious "raw performance" (i.e. screaming/crying) scenes that critics and audiences equate with good acting, it would be criminal to reduce the performance to just that. Yes, she does have those kinds of scenes, but Jasmine is a much more layered character than that.  Blanchett displays a broad emotional range for the character. In the flashback sequences where she is living the high-life as an entitled society wife to her millionaire husband, she pretends not to notice Hal's shady business practices or his obvious infidelities. She's comfortable and she's happy in her deliberate ignorance.  In the San Francisco scenes, where she has moved in with her sister, her resentment and disgust is not even remotely hidden by her phony gratitude. She is here because she has no choice, and regardless of whether or not Ginger is her sister, there are many other places she'd rather be. To her, family doesn't matter. Status does.  Even when, in a flashback sequence, her sister comes to visit her in New York, she is embarrassed and ashamed of her. She buys her things and tries to bring her to her level. The act of having her and her then-husband Augie invest in Hal's scheme was not an act of charity or sisterly goodwill, it was a selfish act. Perhaps if Ginger and Augie were wealthy, she would no longer be ashamed of them.  It's much the same later in the film when she begins her courtship with Dwight, the handsome politician. Up until this point, Jasmine had half-heartedly been trying to better her life with a menial job as a secretary and by taking a computer class. She throws it out the window the second a successful man shows interest in her.  She lies and manipulates Dwight so she can once again achieve the status she once had and she so desperately craves.  The entire film Blanchett's Jasmine is on the very precipice of a complete and total mental snap, and when it finally happens, it's quite haunting. The last image of the film, with Jasmine, completely devoid of make-up, sitting on a bench muttering to herself and recalling her past life is all at once pathetic and sad.  As she has the entire film, she retreats back into what made her happy, what made her comfortable, by reliving her past experiences once again. The film is bookended by her telling the same story: in the opening scenes she is nostalgic where as towards the end of the film she is defeated.

Blanchett is bolstered by a wonderful cast of supporting actors.  Woody Allen has always had a good eye for casting, and this film proves to be no different.  Alec Baldwin is Hal, Jasmine's ex-husband. On the surface this may seem like a natural fit for Baldwin, who has portrayed similar characters in the past Glengarry Glenn Ross and 30 Rock.  Sally Hawkins as the put-upon Ginger is also quite good and with a "working-class" American accent so convincing you can't tell the actress is really from the UK. Bobby Cannavale has big Brando-sized shoes to fill in the Kowalski role from Streetcar, but he makes it his own. The character does have the brutish quality of Kowalski, but with a much lighter twist on it. Chilli, while obnoxious, crass and hot-tempered, he's much more likeable.  Cannavale is joined by some Boardwalk Empire companions in Max Casella and Michael Stuhlbarg in small but memorable performances. The cast is rounded out by fine performances by Peter Sarsgaard and comedians Louis CK and Andrew Dice Clay. Clay, in particular, delivers a surprisingly strong supporting performance as Ginger's ex-husband. I know, I couldn't believe it either.

Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen at his best and proves that at almost 80 years old and over 40 years of directing, he knows a thing or two about making movies.

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