Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine Movie Review

Woody Allen is well known for writing excellent female characters. They are realistic, they delve into the feminine psyche in a way most male writers never even attempt let alone achieve, and they are great roles for actresses. I’m not sure any other single director has been responsible for directing more actresses to Oscar nominations, at least while also failing to equal the feat for male actors. When you think of the iconic female characters he’s written it’s like a treasure trove of great female roles: Annie Hall; Maria Elena (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Linda Ash (Mighty Aphrodite). His titular character in Blue Jasmine might very well be his best creation since Annie Hall.

Jasmine is an updated version of Blanche DuBois, refitted to conform to the 21st century. Instead of a southern belle, she is a New York socialite who loses everything after her philandering husband is revealed as a major financial cheat. In an attempt to recover from a total breakdown and get back on her feet she moves in with her sister Ginger in San Francisco. Ginger is a self-defeatist who believes her sister has had all the good luck in life thanks to good genes that make her prettier, smarter, and more elegant. As such she resigns herself to working class brutes when it comes to romantic partners. Andrew Dice Clay plays her ex-husband Augie, a DIY contractor who still has a chip on his shoulder about losing all his money to Jasmine’s swindler of a husband, played by Alec Baldwin.

The movie takes place in equal parts New York and San Francisco, the latter providing the present timelines and the former depicting the events that led to an inevitable downfall. We get to see Jasmine as both a rich socialite, basking in the limelight of fortune, ostentatious parties, charity galas, and weekends in the Hamptons, and as a woman coming apart at the seams as she desperately clings to what little dignity she has left after losing everything. It’s a consequence of learning that virtually everything in her life has been a shoddy fa├žade that Jasmine suffers a nervous breakdown and resorts to leaning on her working class sister on the Left Coast. Jasmine is truly one of Allen’s greatest creations in terms of character and in the hands of the wonderful Cate Blanchett, she comes to shimmering and beautiful life in the New York scenes and is utterly and tragically convincing as a woman on the brink, always poised to fall off the precipice, in the San Francisco scenes.

It’s easy to place all the focus of praise squarely on Blanchett, who has the showier role, but we shouldn’t too easily ignore Sally Hawkins, who is equally brilliant as Ginger, even if she has less to show off. Ginger is the down-to-earth half of these two women. She yearns for a simple life in which she can provide for her children, have a good solid man to lean on, and squeeze a little bit of zest out of life. She’s the classic ugly duckling sister who, while being comfortable with who she is, nevertheless has a creeping sense that she could have been as well-off as Jasmine. Hawkins plays these notes subtly, using her eyes and the way she looks at her sister to express both envy and spite simultaneously. She has such a good heart, she can’t possibly turn family away even while she recognizes she’s being used and abused, especially when Jasmine berates her for her choice in romantic partners. Ginger’s current beau is Chili, another working class lug, played by Bobby Cannavale. He isn’t refined, cultured, educated, or rich, but he cares for Ginger and he has feelings.

These are things that Jasmine doesn’t understand because all she can see is what’s on the surface. That’s why her attempt at a relationship with a handsome, rich, and well-educated man played by Peter Sarsgaard seems doomed to failure. She aims only for the superficial and thinks that if she puts a thin coat of paint over her tragic past, she can reinvent herself.

As much as I think the character of Jasmine is the stuff that great stories are made from, Blue Jasmine lacks an overall cohesion that would otherwise propel it to the top of Allen’s oeuvre. I think he tries to make it all far less dramatic than A Streetcar Named Desire, the film’s clear source of inspiration, resulting in comical moments that feel uncomfortable for the tragedy unfolding. It’s not like Allen to make an audience squirm while laughing. Other plot points seem haphazardly slapped together to fill in time and take us on a left turn when a bit more brevity might have been in order. These include appearances by Michael Stuhlbarg as a sexually harassing dentist for whom Jasmine works as a receptionist temporarily, and Louis C. K. as an almost perfect storybook match for Ginger. The occasional greatness in writing that Allen demonstrates ultimately left me thirsting for something a little more tightly constructed.

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