August 26, 2013

Tangled up in Blue Jasmine

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The storyline of Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s newest film, jumps back and forth between two stages in the life of its protagonist, Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett). At some points, the film traces her life as a wealthy college dropout, married to a shady real estate mogul (Alec Baldwin) as she splits her time between luncheons, polo matches, and dinner parties. At others, Allen flashes forward to her life in the wake of catastrophe:  her husband has been exposed as a fraud, and she has lost her house, her money, and some part of her sanity. Once annoyed at the prospect of entertaining her less-than-average sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine is now forced to move in with her until she gets her legs back.

When she loses her fortune, Jasmine moves from New York to San Francisco, where she tries to enter the local workforce and get back in the dating game. Her sister’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) is quite sore about Jasmine moving into her house. Apparently, Jasmine convinced him to invest with her ex-husband, meaning he lost everything to the fraudulent business dealings. Similarly, Jasmine is not particularly well-liked by Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Culture clash is all but inevitable from the start.

A person of Jasmine’s stature, accustomed — if not addicted to — luxury and a diet of martinis, forced to live with a woman who bags groceries and her auto mechanic fianceé? There is bound to be friction. And that friction plays out in several colorful ways. Jasmine gets a job as a receptionist in the office of a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who takes a liking to her. In one of the movie’s best scenes, he explains to her there is an awful lot you can tell about a person by looking in their mouth. When she’s not popping Ambien to deal with her frustrating job, she studies computer science so she can become an interior designer, and tries to rub elbows with whatever members of the 1% she can. Eventually she meets a wealthy businessman (Peter Sarsgaard) who has an eye on running for office in California. Jasmine swiftly sweeps her secrets about her husband and family under the rug, in desperation to return to her indigenous lifestyle.

Woody Allen garnered high praise two years ago for Before Midnight, but Blue Jasmine is a more earnest, deeper film. The structure of the story, the leaps in time between the Jasmine of the past and Jasmine of the present, makes it a very interesting and at times hilarious character study. It presents a unique opportunity for its lead actress to portray a millionaire housewife in her element, and then thrown from the horse into the grind of lower-middle class life. Jasmine is a role that requires an actress with the finesse and poise of Cate Blanchett. Her performances makes this film the strongest effort from Woody Allen in years, and is entirely Oscar-worthy.

The film is a kind of Streetcar Named Desire-meets-Bernie Madoff scandal marriage, which owes its memorability to the strength of its cast. Aside from Blanchett, Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) is radiant as Jasmine’s put-upon sister. Ginger is impervious to the class differences that are bogging her sister down, even if she’s perhaps willing to settle for less than she’s worth. She’s possibly one of the nicest siblings I’ve ever seen; only a person with a heart of gold would be able to tolerate Jasmine’s attitude. There’s a lot of comic gold mined during scenes when Jasmine’s pampered disposition is chafed by Ginger’s sons playing loud music, Chili and his friends whooping in front of a boxing match, and by all-around the lack of sympathy for her plight.

It’s no surprise that Woody Allen hasn’t lost his touch for writing strong, remarkably detailed female parts, ranging from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters. After 40 plus years, almost nobody can match him for authentic, humorous exchanges between characters. But as a filmmaker who manages to produce a film a year, he has been unable to avoid repeating himself in previous films from the past few years. With as many films as he has to his credit, some are bound to land low on the totem pole. What makes Blue Jasmine rise to the top is the simplicity of its construct and its focus on the performances. This is a funny and saddening little movie about a judgmental woman cast out of her depth, the genuinely amusing supporting players around her, and the antics that follow. It’s also one of the most entertaining movies of the summer.

Original Author: Mark DiStefano

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