Monday, September 2, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013)
Dir. Woody Allen

3.5 out of 5

Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) is depressed.  She's a long way from the world of wealth and privilege she enjoyed as the wife of Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin), a New York financial scion whose crooked dealings land him in jail.  She's lost her money and most of her possessions to the Feds.  She'd lost Hal to his philandering during their marriage and loses him permanently when he hangs himself in prison.  And, in her mind, she's lost her dignity the day she moves in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her two young boys in their working-class San Francisco flat.  You can see the trainwreck coming from the opening scene, as Jasmine unloads the detailed shambles of her life to a stranger on an airplane in the same chatty tone she used to reserve for her tony Manhattan brunch dates.

Blue Jasmine could have been just another Woody Allen fish-out-of-water dramedy about a suffering intellectual.  Instead, Allen creates a character of fascinating complexity in Jasmine, helped in large part by Blanchett's tour de force performance.  Jasmine initially engenders a sort of face-palming pity as we watch her pretentious bubble burst by the setbacks of day to day life as a vulgar, clock-punching plebeian.  Then, as her story is fleshed out by flashbacks to her pampered past, we see her self-delusion in context.  Her patrician facade masks a deep pain that's visible in the taut lines of her face, as well as a simmering resentment hidden in the breaths she takes before delivering her condescending remarks.   As such, Blanchett delivers one of the more subtle onscreen representations of mental illness.  It's assumed by the other characters to be a symptom of her previous lifestyle, not a pattern of avoidance behavior cultivated over many years of "looking the other way."

Blanchett's performance almost feels too big for the movie it's in.  Allen tries to parallel Jasmine's troubles in Ginger's own problems with men, revolving around the trifecta of her doltish boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), an awkwardly charming new suitor (Louis C.K.), and her prideful ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay).  The fact that the subplot doesn't play out quite as you'd expect - in addition to the melancholy tone of Jasmine's story - invites the "Serious Woody" label upon the film.  That said, even Serious Woody enjoys plot contrivances and a general sense of flakiness that sometimes undercuts Blanchett's tremendous work: a scene where Jasmine repels the sexual advances of a creepy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) is played for ill-advised, uncomfortable laughs.  Still, Blue Jasmine is not unlike Francis Ha in its honest and mostly sympathetic portrait of a conventionally "difficult" female, torn apart by a world that won't acknowledge a woman's right to be as much of a troubled fuckup as the somesuch men making her life even harder.

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