Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Curdled Comedy of Manners: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s 45th movie as director, is also surprisingly one of his most memorable, largely but not only because of Cate Blanchett’s powerful lead performance as a mentally ill socialite fallen upon hard times. Allen’s track record for most of the last 20 years has been pretty mediocre, with the majority of his movies scanning at best as irrelevant. Even the few good films, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), seemed less fresh or creative than earlier Allen movies like Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1985), and Radio Days (1987), not to mention classics like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). So who would have expected Blue Jasmine to be as unique, disturbing and honest as it is?

Blue Jasmine is the darkest Allen film since his very fine Husbands and Wives (1992), and, minus Husbands and Wives' deliberately frenetic camerawork, it is the Allen movie of which Blue Jasmine is most reminiscent  in its open-endedness, refusal to pander to the audience and deep understanding of how someone’s life can very suddenly fall apart even though they’re not blameless when things go south. And despite the fact that the movie’s trailer tries to emphasize the movie’s comedic aspects, even Blue Jasmine’s relatively few jokes are tinged with sadness and despair.

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine
You immediately discern that something is off with Blanchett’s Jasmine (née Jennifer) in the movie’s first shot, where you hear her before you even see her. She’s blathering on a mile a minute to her fellow airplane passenger but not making sense half the time and seemingly unaware both of how she comes across to others and how out of it she really is. Jasmine is on her way to San Francisco, from New York City, to visit her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky), a sibling she has always looked down upon. Ginger wants to do right by Jasmine but that’s not so easy as pretty much everything in Ginger's life her appearance, her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and even her job as a grocery clerk rubs her sister the wrong way and she doesn't hesitate to let Ginger know it. (Jasmine doesn't even understand that her sister, in one of the film's funnier scenes, is incredulous and more than a little irritated that though she is completely tapped out, Jasmine still managed to fly first class to San Francisco.) That turns out to be a double-edged sword as Jasmine’s superior attitude means that no one (relatively) close to her can see how psychologically disturbed she has become. They think she’s just weird because she talks to herself but they don’t understand that she zones out and believes that the people she speaks to are actually there in front of her. It’s a chilling portrait of mental illness Allen’s first, I believe and Blanchett is riveting, particularly when Allen’s adept flashbacks to her seemingly idyllic marriage to high-powered, slick Manhattan businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin) contrast her past brittleness to the emotional wreck she has become.

Blanchett has had no shortage of strong parts in her lengthy career (among them The Lord of the Rings movies, Bandits, Pushing Tin, The Gift, Little Fish and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) but even stacked against those varied, challenging roles, her take on Jasmine stands out. (I don't really agree with all those critics who overemphasize A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois as the genesis of her role; there are similarities in the two parts and in aspects of Tennessee Williams' play vis a vis the movie but Blue Jasmine still strikes me as a thoroughly Woody Allen project that stands just fine on its own.) It's a gutsy performance, which does not for a second beg for approval, even when she, in tears, tries to connect with her troubled, hostile stepson Danny (Alden Ehrenreich). Why she doesn’t deserve his support is later revealed in a moment that is startling in its ramifications. Ehrenreich, like virtually the whole cast, is letter perfect in his small role and in this way, too, Blue Jasmine is a welcome departure from Allen’s recent norm. So many of his movies of late, from Match Point (2005) to Whatever Works (2009) to Midnight in Paris (2011), have either saddled good actors with bad parts or given them little to do at all on screen. Blue Jasmine gives virtually everyone in the cast their acting due and they run with it, from Hawkins, Cannavale and Baldwin to Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, a diplomat whom Jasmine sets her sights on as a potential mate, and Max Casella (The Sopranos) as one of Chili’s buddies, brought along as a date for Jasmine. (That encounter doesn’t turn out well, as you might expect.) Even comedian Andrew Dice Clay is convincing as Augie, Ginger’s emotionally wounded ex-husband, whose fate is also affected by Hal and Jasmine. But Hawkins makes the strongest mark among them; Ginger has her own issues and insecurities, some encouraged by Jasmine, and is even a little lost and reckless. You can sense how she might have gone off the rails herself were her circumstances and support system different.

Blanchett, Woody Allen & Alec Baldwin, on the set of Blue Jasmine
Yes, there’s still a whiff of condescension on Allen’s part towards Augie, Chili and Ginger’s lower class situation, as there was in his depiction of Mia Farrow’s lovelorn housewife in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but it doesn’t hurt the film too much: the actors still have meaty roles to play and manage to humanize their characters and make them sympathetic, even when they, like Chili, act out in childish ways. (Only Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) is treated ungenerously by Allen; he can’t do much with his stereotyped role as Dr. Flicker, a nerdy dentist who hires Jasmine as a receptionist for his office.)

Allen’s traditional use of old standards in his soundtracks – an affectation and a cliché which has become very tiresome – works for a change, mostly because the familiar tunes, including the classic "Blue Moon," function as Pavlovian conditioning for Jasmine, instantly reminding her of the ‘happy’ times when she first met Hal and began to think that the world was her oyster. But we, the audience, see it differently, with the songs serving as yet another recurring reminder that Jasmine is deluded and myopic, especially when it comes to Hal, traits which in her case shade into much bleaker psychological terrain. It helps, too, that Allen hasn’t fetishized San Francisco the way he did London in Match Point and Scoop (2006). In those movies we were always conscious of London as a town viewed by a tourist, which detracted from the believability of its story and its residents’ actions, but Blue Jasmine is grounded in the realities of its city, which is, of course, often beautiful, but sometimes grimy, too.

I don’t doubt that some critic somewhere, if they haven’t already, will deem Blue Jasmine an insightful commentary on how the 1% screw over the other 99%, but I don’t think that Allen is angling for that comparison. For one, it would date the film very quickly. But it would also suggest a political subtext which isn’t really there, except incidentally. Consider Blue Jasmine instead as a curdled comedy of manners, with its protagonist's wit poised to genuinely hurt and damage. That might not sound like summer entertainment but Blue Jasmine is such a highly engrossing and impressive Woody Allen movie that it stands out as one of the high points of his decidedly spotty filmmaking career.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on acting archetypes in the fall.

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