Friday, August 16, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Review by Pamela Zoslov

In his nearly 50-year directing career, Woody Allen has emulated Bergman, Fellini, Cassavetes, Fritz Lang and other masters. In his new film, BLUE JASMINE, Allen unexpectedly tears a page from Tennessee Williams, a playwright with whom he shares an interest in vivid female characters.

(A brief aside: I once published an essay defending Allen against a snarky film critic's denunciation of him as outrageously sexist. This opinion was presumably based in large part on his unorthodox personal life — call it the Polanski Perplex. But whatever one thinks of Allen's past conduct, the fact is that few filmmakers have created better or more complex roles for women. Just after I wrote these words, the New York Times published an article on this very subject.)

With Blue Jasmine, Allen presents one of his best female characters to date. His Blanche DuBois is Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a pampered Manhattan socialite, now fallen on hard times, who decamps to the cramped apartment of her poorer sister, Ginger. Jasmine clashes with her sister's brutish lover (Bobby Cannavale), as she did with Ginger's equally rough ex-husband (comedian Andrew Dice Clay, an inspired bit of casting).

Although she has no money or prospects, Jasmine – born Jeanette, a name she found too ordinary — glides around with the snooty airs of her erstwhile status, much like Blanche DuBois. She is nervous and unsteady, given to talking to herself in public, attracting stares. She pops Xanax and guzzles vodka (“...[L]apping it up all summer like a wildcat,” as Stanley Kowalski said of sister-in-law Blanche.) Blancett is perfect and convincingly American. It seems there's little she can't do, whether portraying Queen Elizabeth I or Bob Dylan. Blanchett inhabits this complicated character with √©lan. Jasmine is snobby and deluded, but she's also sympathetic.

As Stella to this elegant, Chanel-clad Blanche, Allen has cast another British actress, the wonderful Sally Hawkins (MADE IN DAGENHAM). They are two sisters of different parents, raised by the same adoptive family. The friendly, toothy Ginger, who works as a grocery cashier, is sanguine about her humble status. She's content to eat takeout pizza with Chili, her boisterous lug of a boyfriend. She's content, at least until Jasmine hectors her about her bad wardrobe and her tendency to settle for “losers.”

With her patrician bone structure and perfect designer clothes, Jasmine is a striking figure, though she's clearly unstable. The opening scene has her talking the ear off her seatmate on an airliner headed for San Francisco, telling her unlucky fellow passenger at length how she met her dashing husband Hal, and how fantastic their sex life was. Hal (Alec Baldwin, in a role perfectly tailored for him) was a brash, extravagant investor. The film artfully weaves Jasmine's present life, trying to rebuild her life after the traumatic ending of her marriage, and scenes from her old life of lavish parties, beach houses, yachts, European travel, and surprise gifts of diamond jewelry from Hal, meant to distract her from his many affairs. Jasmine's friends knew about Hal's philandering, but Jasmine, enjoying the “perks” of her marriage, looked the other way. She also never questioned his business practices, even when one of his shady investments cost Ginger and her husband their nest egg.

Laid low after the collapse of Hal's empire, Jasmine is at a loss. She once studied to be an anthropologist, but now has to settle for a receptionist job in a a dentist's office, where she's all but chased around a desk by Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg of A SERIOUS MAN). She vaguely aspires to be an interior designer, but is unable to master basic computer skills. This career business being so full of obstacles, she pursues the only course familiar to her. Like a post-millennial Lorelei Lee, Jasmine looks for a wealthy man to marry. She also draws Ginger into this scheme, and both meet men at an upscale party — Ginger's is apparent nice guy Al (comedian Louis C.K.), and Jasmine's is a Kennedyesque aspiring politician, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard).

Allen seems fascinated by the contrast between high and low-life, and his depictions of each segment are sometimes exaggerated – the elites too stiff and arid (CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS), the ruffians too comically stupid (SMALL TIME CROOKS). In this film, they mix in interesting ways. The rough candor of Cannavale's Chili punctures Jasmine's lofty self-image (“This is a big comedown for you.”), while Jasmine's urbanity reminds Ginger that there are men who wouldn't consider ripping a telephone out of a wall, as Chili (what a name!) does in a jealous rage.

These contrasting types make an entertaining mosaic. This brisk, lively character study of a woman on the edge is the most satisfying Woody Allen film in many years. 4 out of 4 stars.

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