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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013):  Written and directed by Woody Allen.  Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Canavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, and a very, very Serious Man.  Running Time: 98 minutes.  Based (largely) off of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            I have never made a secret out of the fact that I strongly dislike Tennessee Williams’ ubiquitous “American Classic” A Streetcar Named Desire.  Perhaps that says less about the play itself and more about the stage of life I was in when I first read it.  Either way, something about its disparaging and aggressively bleak tone just didn’t appeal to me, and still doesn’t (not that that excuses the romantic liberties taken by the 1951 film).  That said, I do understand why it’s a classic, and why people still read it, perform it, watch it, and discuss it- be it fact or fiction, few things are as compulsively watchable as the tale of the fallen diva, the uppity jerk who’s self-centeredness brings about their own downfall.  Be it healthy or no, it’s our continuing cultural addiction to such stories that, in my personal opinion, is the primary reason why Streetcar still exerts such a powerful influence on American theater and film

            I begin by discussing Streetcar because it was clearly one of the springboards for the plot of Blue Jasmine, the latest effort by actor/director Woody Allen.  Although it’s not listed as a direct influence on the movie’s story, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (or is it Jeanette?) bears a noticeably strong resemblance to Blanche Dubois.  Like Blanche, Jasmine enters the film with assured swagger, projecting an aristocratic image of a woman confident in herself, her wealth, and her place in society.  And also like with Blanche, we almost immediately realize that this projection is merely that, and that not only is Jasmine no longer the woman of means she used to be, she’s also mentally unstable. 

            Part of her mental instability could be attributed to the fact that the life of vast excess she and her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) enjoyed was built almost entirely on lies- Hal lied to his clients and partners (including Jasmine’s sister and her ex-husband) about the security of his business, lied to the government about its legitimacy, and lied to Jasmine about his fidelity.  Jasmine, in turn, lied to herself about her husband’s affairs, and lied to others about knowing how big a crook he was- she spends the entire film claiming ignorance of his deeds, but a telling moment in one scene suggests this is less than true.  Now that all the lies have fallen away and she has nothing left but debts (and her Louis Vuitton luggage, and a first-class plane ticket to San Fran), she appears to be both physically and mentally incapable of dealing with it and moving on.  However, in one of the movie’s many brilliant subtleties, it’s left open-ended how much of her mental state resulted from the breakup of her marriage, and how much of it had always been there, lurking beneath her veneer of first-class contentment. 

            The full story of her marriage with Hal (and its many, many disastrous consequences) is given to us piecemeal, in brief flashbacks scattered throughout the “main” story- after Hal goes to jail and hangs himself, Jasmine leaves New York behind and moves in with her sister Ginger in San Francisco.  The extreme normalcy of Ginger’s life and of her working-class, boxing-loving boyfriend Chili quickly start to offend Jasmine’s sense of what a “better life” should look like- her initial reaction to Ginger’s small, compact apartment is a sarcastic, “It looks so…homey!” 

            Jasmine’s horror at having to live below her perceived station and at what she sees as Chili’s shortcomings quickly starts to create rifts between herself and her sister, and even between her sister and Chili before too long.  Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins) perfectly captures the dilemma of someone trapped between the demands of both her family and her partner- she’s still angry and hurt about how she and her ex were cheated by Hal, but when Chili angrily demands to know why she’s still trying to help Jasmine (whose arrival in San Francisco has delayed his moving in with Ginger), she helplessly responds, “Because she’s my sister!” 

            In another marked parallel to Streetcar, Jasmine does make some tottering steps towards giving her life a new direction- she takes up a job as a dentist’s secretary (an affair that eventually goes horribly wrong) in order to pay for classes in computers and interior design.  She even manages to find a well-off, single guy in Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard), the proverbial Mitch who could offer her a way to come to terms with the past, but once again, her immense capacity for lies and self-delusion rears its ugly head, and starts to douse the bridge with oil before it’s even been fully built. 

            The acting in the movie is across-the-board excellent, easily the film’s greatest asset, and the highlight is Cate Blanchett’s multi-tiered performance as Jasmine, which (I believe) should guarantee her an early spot on the list of Oscar nominees.  Jasmine barely registers as sympathetic- an encounter with her wayward son, who disappeared after Hal’s crimes were unmasked, goes about as well for her as most would expect- but the indefagitable Blanchett still gets across that, sometimes, Jasmine isn’t quite so blind to how much she hurts both herself and others.  She’s not the only one to get a spotlight moment though- Bobby Canavale’s Chili gets not one, but two great scenes when he learns that Ginger (partially because of Jasmine’s urging) has started an affair with a guy she met at a party. 

            One of the movie’s recurring motifs is the song “Blue Moon”- as Jasmine explains to literally everyone, whether or not they’re listening, it was the song playing when she first met Hal at a party.  Its constant reintroduction in the background is almost like a personal Siren for her, calling her back into remembrance of and obsession over the past, a lost time she would love nothing more than to have back.  That, of course, is where her character’s greatest tragedy lies- she can’t have her former life back, and to some extent she realizes that.  Desire for a dream, however, can often prove far more alluring than acceptance of a "lesser" reality.  

            If there is one problem with Blue Jasmine, it’s the screenplay.  Woody Allen is known for sharp, funny, and often brutally dark dialogue, but while this movie has its moments of wit and humor, it also tends towards being overly repetitive and expositional.  I got tired hearing of about Hal being a crook, his affairs, the FBI investigation, his suicide, and Jasmine’s subsequent (and very public) mental breakdown by about the 5th time it was hashed out in a given scene, so the next 5 times it was discussed were just plain tiresome.  Thankfully, although it is a distraction, it’s never long or sustained enough to completely break the film, and as I said before, its saving grace is that no one in the cast is dead weight.  Blue Jasmine is one of the best English-language films of the year thus far, and has a better chance than The Butler of being on the shortlist for Oscar nominations.  Definitely see this one while it’s in theaters if you get the chance. 

-Noah Franc 

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