Movie Review: Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen has a long history exploring neurotic themes. So, why change after all these years?
The cinematic poster boy of anxiety and dysfunction is once again in familiar territory. Allen has repeatedly assumed roles that we imagine are very much like the prolific writer/director/actor himself. On the big screen, Allen never quite seems to be “acting.” Rather, he’s always playing “Woody Allen.” Now at age 77 and nearing his fifth decade of film making, Allen appears to have finally accepted his seniority and the obvious limitations this poses playing self-absorbed, angst-riddled, affluent urbanites who provided perpetual laughter for generations since the 1960s. Today, Allen seems much more comfortable projecting these complexes on others he hand-picks for his movies, who essentially become the stand-in Allen persona.
The prolific movie master’s latest siphon is Cate Blanchett. She plays the title role in Allen’s latest cinematic offering, Blue Jasmine. Following a string of films shot in Europe with mixed commercial and critical success, Allen brings his witty imagination and clarinet-infused tempo back to the United States, this time mostly San Francisco — a city he hasn’t featured since Play It Again Sam (1972). Like the well-defined original characters Allen has created over a lifetime, he also insists on equally memorable shooting locales. Only a few of the world’s cities are apparently so consequential to have imprinted Allen’s cavalcade of movies — including San Francisco, London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, and of course, his native New York.
Blanchett plays a middle-aged narcissistic widow. Through negligence and spite, she’s forced to start her life all over again after being crassly dumped following what she thought was a storybook marriage to a villain apparently based on Bernie Madoff, cast to perfection with Alec Baldwin in the despicably charming role. The film opens with Jasmine in first-class, fleeing her old life of luxury. Her Fifth Avenue apartment and summer cottage in the Hamptons long ago confiscated, along with countless jewels and furs — all taken to satisfy creditors — Blanchett begins the film in denial. Broke and left with nothing, Jasmine has no other option than to move west to San Francisco and try to begin anew, with the help of her sister, a divorced grocery clerk barely making ends meet herself. As one can imagine, these living arrangements turn out to be a disaster for everyone.
This is essentially Jasmine’s story, although other narratives manages to cloud the picture. Oddly enough, even though we know the spoils of stolen money created her isolation and total lack of perspective, we are saddened by her loss. Although she completely lacks empathy for normal people with common problems, we still find ourselves drawn towards Jasmine, sympathetic to her gradual decline towards a total breakdown. She eventually becomes a basket case as the film flashes back and forth between her wonderful life of pure illusion that once was, versus the miserable (but very real) life she has now with seemingly no future.
Make no mistake, Blanchett completely carries this film from start to finish, displaying an astonishing range of emotions, without ever seeming melodramatic or strutting for the cameras. Probably due to Allen’s meticulous writing and direction, Blanchett virtually becomes Jasmine and somehow miraculously transforms a character we might normally despise into someone who earns our sympathy and a second chance at peace and happiness.
For those expecting typical Allen comedic fare, be advised that Blue Jasmine is a more serious drama which closely resembles Allen’s underrated previous work Interiors (1978). Those expecting to enjoy the usual lighthearted head-shaking laughs and common allusions to people most of us know, will be disappointed by this film’s more serious subtext. While there’s something uncomfortably humorous about watching other people do dumb things, Blanchett slowly disintegrating in front of our eyes becomes heartbreaking. All of this takes place amidst the typical gaudy surrounding cast of an Allen film, each with their own peculiarities. One supporting role really stands out from the rest. Comedian Andrew Dice Clay, playing a muscled-up brother-in-law to Blanchett, the kind of role we would pretty much expect of Clay, still manages to hit the perfect note and actually becomes one of the film’s few characters with his act together.
Those familiar with the works of Tennessee Williams will easily recognize numerous similarities to A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) interspersed throughout the film. The neurotic visiting diva. The caring but helpless sister. The brutish husband. Even the apartment and street outside closely mirror the cramped Kowalski home. Contemporary movies have borrowed from the classics in the past, and Allen is more than entitled to pay tribute to the great playwright Williams.
Nonetheless, reviewing a film like this one proves difficult, because it’s clearly geared towards a very specific market rather than the mainstream. Unfortunately, over the years Allen’s popular appeal seems to have been whittled down mostly to seniors and New York ex-pats, who grew up and still identify with Allen’s most intimate sensibilities. For those who love Woody Allen’s body of work, as I do, all of his films are a virtual “must see,” even those we know to be mediocre. I rank this one as slightly better than average in the Allen canon of films — not as disappointing as his previous release To Rome with Love (2012), but no where near as fun or creative as his movie before that, Midnight in Paris (2011). Once again, for those expecting the usual Allen comedy, think again. This ever-so-slowly becomes a serious character-driven drama, albeit with some occasional smiles.
What makes Blue Jasmine worth seeing is Cate Blanchett, for a performance worthy of the first serious consideration of the year for a Best Actress nomination. This is no surprise. Allen has a long history of writing wonderfully complex female lead characters and Blanchett will most certainly earn a well-deserved place alongside the likes of Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Diane Wiest, Meryl Streep, and so many other exemplary roles played to perfection by the finest actors around.
Aside from those who make it a habit of watching Inside the Actors Studio regularly, this is probably a movie most others would be advised to pass on.
I give this 6 stars out of 10 and a thumb up.