Thursday, August 1, 2013

Blue Jasmine

The nerve, the twitch that hit the zeitgeist in recent years, that tinge of uproar sparked by the brief Occupy movement, inspired by the corrupt antics of those richer-than-sin is but the blip of the surface that's keenly and acutely observed in Woody Allen's latest-- a rich and potent character study of one woman's riches to rags saga.  It's also inspired the most provocative and surprising drama the filmmaker has tackled in years, decades even, as if Allen was hit by a primal nerve, one in which he sought to create a crowd-pleasing morality fable centered around a once wealthy woman, not just on the verge of a nervous breakdown, by in the full-on throes of one.  Blue Jasmine, a sparkling melodrama, seems to document a sudden and welcome shift, not to mention a glimmer of topicality for the illustrious auteur.  For decades, Allen has held a gilded light on the neurotic and prickly dwellers on the upper echelons of society, at first as noted observer, than as insider-- in Blue Jasmine, Allen retreats and through the prism of a most absorbent character study, he has perhaps given the proletarians the feel good movie of the year.

Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) is a modern day royal, one of the many superbly coiffed, well spoken members of high society, or she was, now she's tapped out due to the crafty bookkeeping by her high yields husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), and stuck in an eternal existential state of why me.  With no skill set to speak of, the loss of the societal camaraderie she once knew and recent bouts of mania, Jasmine has little choice but to journey west to San Francisco and mooch off her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) with little else but her own snobbish haughtiness to sate her.  Something is amiss right from the start of the film, as Jasmine, a woman so desperate to maintain authoritative civility,  appears lost on the doorsteps of her sister's apartment in one of the very first scenes, as if she's stuck in a nightmare waiting to wake up back at her summer home in Southampton where she can play the consummate hostess, the only role that ever naturally suited her.
Allen is on record to have based Blue Jasmine on the Bernie Madoff saga, focusing the film on the wife of a white collar criminal, and her struggle to maintain her own sense of self after losing everything.  More aptly, he's concocted a modern-day Blanche Dubois, a moving and unsettling portrait of a woman whose gilded cage has been gutted and who is forced out into the world with the regular folks; Blanchett, perhaps not so incidentally recently played Blanche in a stage adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, and even less incidentally for an actor of such force and precision gives an astonishing performance.

What differentiates and marks a delightfully balanced surprise in Allen's latest is not just that class warfare plays a theme as Jasmine and Ginger butt heads, but that the filmmaker who so decidedly has given the cinema such pleasurable, albeit neurotic cases of wanderers of the Upper West Side, in Blue Jasmine gives the poor shlubs a rebuttal.  Jasmine, for her culture, diction and style is a distraught, disturbed woman once she's edged out of her tiny one-percent safety palace, whereas Ginger, who works as a grocer and is engaged to a cuddly, if rough-around-the-edges man named Chili (Bobby Cannavale), whom Jasmine disapproves of, is a passionate, resourceful contemporary woman, aware of its strife and struggle, yet spirited, aware and passionate.  Hawkins' sublime performance is reflective of this, as is the generous ensemble of men in Ginger's life, including Cannavale and most shockingly-- Andrew Dice Clay, sensitive and potent as Ginger's ex-husband.  Ginger is complicated creature as well, and scripted in the tradition of great Allen female characters-- messy but strong.

Whereas Jasmine is broken down, but not quite aware of it, she has bouts of talking to herself on the streets and losing her sense of balance over life midway through sentences, nothing of the sort that her favored cocktail of Xanax and Stolli vodka can render to a place of solitude.  She reluctantly takes on a job as a dental assistant, which in her words is terrifying because it's so "menial" and yet, in the beauty of Blanchett's magnificently bonkers, multi-faceted performance drives down the point of the jobs very hell and burden on her soul-- it's humorously tragic, much like the movie itself.

Through this, and the many flashbacks of Blue Jasmine which shine a light on the "real" Jasmine in her happier, richer days, Blanchett creates perhaps her most indelible character.  Her snobbery is her own undoing, but her gumption in masking her pain in the hope of a keeping appearances is relatable in the same fashion that it's pathetic.  Jasmine is the villain and hero of her own story, and that's the wonderfully complicated draw to Allen's achievement-- he's most pointed since Crimes & Misdemeanors.  Even after a second chance at a proper life, which comes in the form of an upstart politician of good breeding (played by Peter Sarsgaard), Jasmine's mania has at this point gone full-tilt towards the madness, like Blanche.

It's slightly remarkable that at this point in Woody Allen's career, he still can achieve this kind of only once-in-a-while sort of alchemy, even as his factory made one-picture-a-year-plan has proved on an uptick since Midnight in Paris two years ago became his most profitable yet.  Yet, while that picture held the lovely grace note of nostalgia and it's captivating allure, Blue Jasmine achingly and thoughtfully lives in the present and represents a new moral code of arms for Allen, one which hopefully will stick around.  A-

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