Sunday, October 20, 2013


Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay: Blue Jasmine

No other actress  turned in a better performance in 2013 than Cate Blanchett's in  Blue Jasmine.  As a slowly fragmenting  woman who had it all and lost it all, Blanchett gives the sort of performance that not only establishes her as the top actress of her era, but even hearkens back to the classic roles of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Writer/director Woody Allen also proves that the second wind he caught with Match Point (2005) isn't over yet. Allen, putting together a film that is both timeless and topical, appears to have outdone himself.  

Filmed mostly in a San Francisco that seems both sumptuous and arid, as if the entire city was vacuumed prior to Allen's arrival, the story centers on Jasmine, a woman who was married to a Bernard Medoff type investor (played to slimy perfection by Alec Baldwin). For years she was a member of New York's pampered upper crust while her husband Hal called his clients pussies and ripped them off. He ends up in prison where he kills himself. The government leaves Jasmine with nothing. Desperate, she somehow finds her way to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sallie Hawkins). They aren't biological sisters - they were both adopted - which explains why one is tall and glamorous and the other looks scrappy and undernourished. Jasmine, the one with "the good genes," found herself in the money while Ginger scrapes by on menial jobs and loser boyfriends. There's tension between the sisters; Ginger's first husband won a small fortune in the California lottery years earlier, but Hal invested it badly and left Ginger and hubby broke as ever. Still, Ginger is a down to earth sort and puts up with Jasmine's barging in on her. That Jasmine is a burgeoning drunk and pillhead is bad enough; she also hyper critical of Ginger's latest lover, a cretin named Chili (Bobby Cannavale) who wants to set her up with one of his lowbrow buddies.
Allen unspools the story in flashbacks, jumping back in time to show Jasmine when she was wealthy, and then in San Francisco, where she struggles to learn how to use a computer, and demeans herself by working as a receptionist for a horny dentist. In the flashbacks, Jasmine is always seen basking by the pool, or soaking in a gigantic tub, or presiding over  an extravagant dinner party. She's as pampered as a housecat. When Hal buys her a piece of jewelry, he may as well be buying her a nice cat collar. It's no wonder she's clueless about the world her sister lives in. Not surprisingly, she hopes to reinvent herself as an interior decorator: the last vestige of the cripplingly spoiled is usually a stab at creativity.

In an earlier time in his career, Allen might have allowed Jasmine to triumph, to actually make it on her own and even find love again. In 2013, Allen stands back and watches her fall, partly because her tumble from grace is so spectacular. He's also suggesting that work keeps one sane. Even Ginger, a simple grocery bagger, seems sharper and more intuitive than Jasmine. Having never worked, Jasmine's brain is muddled. She babbles a lot, and can't focus. She seems utterly defenseless. The one thing she can do is memorialize her past, turning episodes of her life with Hal into almost theatrical monologues. She springs her memories on anyone, including complete strangers and children. The fact that no one is especially interested makes her plight even sadder. There's a running gag in the film where she begins talking and people move away from her. It's humerous, but also tragic. She has no one to share her story with, and can only be consumed by it. It eventually eats her totally.

Too much has been made of Allen's loose borrowing from A Streetcar Named Desire - aside from some plot points that resemble Blanche Dubois' fall from grace, the script is very much another of Allen's examinations of the modern neurotic woman. Besides, Blanche Dubois was always a fraud; Jasmine is relatively innocent and naive in comparions to Blanche, and was, at one time, living the life Blanche pretended to have. The question as to whether Jasmine knew of Hal's crookedness is raised, and provides one of the riddles of the film.

Allen has often assembled large casts, but many of these casts just stand around like window dressing. In Blue Jasmine, everyone roars, everyone has a role that could make a career, and the film is full of dramatic moments of which all actors dream. Heroically, each actor in Blue Jasmine lives up to the challenge Allen puts before them. What sort of gambler's sense did Allen have when he cast Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Ginger's first husband? It paid off beautifully, for Clay delivers big in two exquisite scenes. If Blanchett plays someone who lost everything, Clay plays someone who never had it in the first place, a blue collar worker who simply yearned to be his own boss. He's heartbreaking. Bobby Cannavale as Chili, the brutish but ineffectual boyfriend of Ginger, walks the fine line between violence and buffoonery. In fact, many of the men in this film seem on the verge of violence. Of course, Allen's world is too genteel, and even his Stanley Kowalski surrogate turns out to be wimpy. When Cannavale tracks Ginger down at work to question her about an affair she's having, he ends up weeping.

The men in Blue Jasmine are almost entirely shady. Louis CK plays an average Joe who turns out to be as conniving as everyone else in the story. Peter Sarsgaard is a potential love interest for Jasmine, but when he finds out about her past, he turns out to be a whining whelp concerned only about his image. In a film loaded with ugly moments, the scene where Sarsgaard worries about his future as a congressman is possibly the ugliest.

Then there's Alec Baldwin as Hal, the philandering investment-banker husband. With his perfect hair, oversized upper lip, and phony smile, Baldwin is the embodiment of the soulless and overprivileged. The tiny audience I saw the film with tittered at Baldwin's every word, enjoying his villainy. How much, I wonder, does Baldwin's success in his portrayal of Hal depend on what we know of Baldwin's personal life?  Baldwin is in a precarious stage of his career. He's as talented as anyone in the business, but he carries the weight of a personal life that sees him put his foot in his mouth every six months or so.  Just seeing him as Hal tips us off - this guy is probably no good. Did Allen play on Baldwin's personal life to add even more spice to Hal's shady character? Could be. No one knows better than Allen that one's personal life will shade everyone's perception of you onscreen.

Allen has removed himself from two of his last three pictures, and has subsequently earned two of his biggest hits in years. It took him a while to realize it, but aside from his most loyal followers, it seems audiences don't enjoy his face. Would Midnight in Paris have been as popular with the mainstream if he'd cast himself in it instead of the likable Owen Wilson? No way.  Like a hated neighbor peeping over the hedge, Allen took a role in From Rome with Love, a light comedy he probably felt he could sneak into. It wasn't a big hit, possibly because it was too lightweight, possibly because Allen was in it. He's become a bit like Jasmine, wanting to talk, but only driving people away. Tellingly, he's nowhere to be found in Blue Jasmine. Twenty years ago he would've played the lecherous dentist.

Hawkins as Ginger is a marvel. A cricket of a woman, she speaks in a slightly choked tone, as if she's always stifling a sob. She's a survivor, and even though she tries to take Jasmine's advice about finding someone nice, she ends up back in Chili's arms. Not out of love, but out of survival. Jasmine was the sister with "the good genes," but Ginger is built to last. She won't end up babbling to herself on a park bench.

Still, as inspiring as the ensemble proved to be, the film belongs to Blanchett. If this is a just world, she gets an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Hawkins gets one for Best Supporting.



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