A film review by Craig J. Koban September 4, 2013

BLUE JASMINE jjj
 

2013, PG-13, 98  mins.

 

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine  /  Sally Hawkins as Ginger  /  Alec Baldwin as Hal  /  Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight  /  Louis C.K. as Al  /  Alden Ehrenreich as Danny  /  Andrew Dice Clay as Augie  /  Bobby Cannavale as Chili  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Flicker  

Written and directed by Woody Allen

BLUE JASMINE is Woody Allen’s 44th film in 47 years.  That’s an extraordinary outpouring of creative energy.  At a time when directors of his age are struggling to find new ways to tell old stories, it’s kind of amazing that the 77-year-old filmmaker still manages to make his latest films feel both fresh and familiar, and BLUE JASMINE is no exception.  His previous films flirted with geographical variety (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was a love ballad to all things Parisian, whereas VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and TO ROME WITH LOVE basked in the ethereal glow of their respective European locales).  BLUE JASMINE shows Allen coming back to his roots…sort of.  It’s his first film set in the United States in nearly a decade and, more significantly, his first film since the 70’s where it has been ostensibly shot in an area outside of Manhattan (in its case, San Francisco). 

Perhaps unlike his previous few efforts, BLUE JASMINE offers hearty laughs alongside excruciating pathos.  It concerns a woman of relative power, wealth, and social influence that has a fall from grace and then slowly descends into mental breakdown.  There seems to be very few films these days that seem to tackle human frailty and psychosis – and does so by mixing that with themes of class tension.  Oh, and the fact that BLUE JASMINE also manages to be pretty amusing at the same time is a testament to Allen’s skills at homogenizing all of the divergent material and tones.  BLUE JASMINE may not be the sublime Allen of old, but it certainly represents a fiercely ambitious film for him on a thematic level, so much so that you’re almost willing to forgive him for the few missteps he makes along the way. 

The film’s title is a partial allusion to its main character, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who was once an extremely wealthy Manhattan socialite who lived a lifestyle of extravagant luxuries with her entrepreneur husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin).  They had everything: yachts, designer clothes, jewellery, mansions, and a group of equally well-off friends.  Unfortunately, Hal’s business dealings were less-than-ethical, which caused him to be arrested and sent to prison.  Drowning in debt by her husband’s lawyer fees, Jasmine is left relatively penniless and with nowhere to go.  She has no job and no real skill set…unless being rich and doing relatively nothing because you are rich could be considered a skill. 

 

 

Downtrodden and embarrassed by the whole fiasco of her husband’s activities, Jasmine decides to head to San Francisco to move in with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in an effort to try to pull herself out of financial hot water.  Things don’t start off to a good start for Jasmine, mostly because she is not impressed by her sibling’s more downscale dwelling, but perhaps more so because he admonishes her for her choice in boyfriends.  Ginger’s ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) was not among Jasmine’s favorite people, let alone her newest boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who is just a small improvement.  Jasmine, alas, needs a job, but she possesses very little qualifications for most positions, and she ends up working for a slimy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg), who yearns to have her be more than just an assistant to him. 

Jasmine’s life does manage to markedly improve when she hooks up with a wealthy Californian with aspirations of seeking a Congressional seat, Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard), who finds himself falling hard and fast for the easy-on-the-eyes Jasmine.  Just when their happiness – and strong potential for future marital bliss – seems to be on the horizon, Jasmine’s inner struggles with emotional instability (not to mention her penchant for booze and pill popping and an inability to tell the truth) begins to creep up on her and ruin what chance she has for happiness.  She crashes hard, and at this point we begin to really see just how psychologically far she has broken from reality.   

It has been said that BLUE JASMINE is a thinly veiled ode to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and I can certainly see it.  Jasmine’s sister, for instance, has to choose between two crude and monosyllabic men, Augie (an insanely and unexpectedly decent Clay) and Chili (Cannavale can play loveably dimwitted brutes with the best of them).  Jasmine herself is also kind of patterned off of Blanche Dubois as someone who seems to think very highly of herself and has a low opinion of those beneath her.  One of the more appealing aspects of the film is how well Allen seems to understand the class milieu here – and how the classes often conflict with one another - of all of his characters.  Moreover, he manages to give each persona in BLUE JASMINE a distinct and clear voice, which only further adds to the rich tapestry of the film. 

The film becomes that much more enthralling, though, because of Blanchett’s tour de force and never-look-back performance.  What’s kind of incredible is that Blanchett makes Jasmine both an identifiable victim as well as a loathsome heel of a woman, which is a tricky performance dichotomy to pull off effectively.  Jasmine is not really a heroine or an anti-heroine, per se, as she more or less occupies a decidedly more compelling middle ground between the two.  On one hand, she’s a snobby elitist that you just want to slap, but conversely she’s also a deeply naïve and overly trusting woman that lets her own vanity-pursuing life goals get in the way of seeing what a stone-cold criminal her husband was.  The tragedy of her character is that she also grows crazier by the minute, wickedly going from one disparaging and self-delusional mood swing to the next.  You feel for Jasmine’s anguish and hopelessness (no woman deserves to be sexually assaulted by her employer), but it’s so easy to condemn her for her callous attitudes towards her working-class family members that are just trying to support her.  There are just so many complicated textures to Jasmine, and Blanchett will surely net an Oscar nomination for her searing work here. 

The other performances are solid too, especially by Jenkins, who brings a soulful authenticity to Jasmine’s sister who too is going through her own thorny relationship woes.  It’s also kind of a treat to see Sarsgaard – for once in a long while – not play a reptilian creep.  Andrew Dice Clay may be the most shockingly revelatory actor in the film, as he is able to imbue in Augie a tangible level of anger, resentment, and vulnerability all at the same time.  Baldwin’s Hal, unfortunately, is simply not in the film enough – nor is he very well rounded as a character – for his performance to hold up to his fellow cast members.  The story of Hal’s marriage is largely told through a very awkward series of flashbacks and flashforwards, which proves to be very jarring at first.  A much more straightforward and liner script from Allen may have made for a better sensory experience that what’s on display here. 

Yet, Allen yet again demonstrates how articulate he is at directing a film of precise and pleasing economy while writing memorable characters that resonate deeply with sharp dialogue and empowered performances.  The idiosyncratic impulses of Allen are here on display, to be sure, but BLUE JASMINE feels, I dunno, much less Allen-ian than many of his previous outings.  Despite being frequently hilarious and having fun at Jasmine’s expense, the film finds darkness and despair with her predicament.  It’s noteworthy that this “comedy” concludes not with a laugh, but with a scene that’s agonizingly heartbreaking, which also serves to showcase just how much Blanchett has eerily immersed herself in her role. 

  H O M E