Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Cate Blanchett,Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Sally Hawkins
Released: 27th September 2013 (UK)
As I’m not typically excited to see a Woody Allen film it came as a surprise when the trailer for his annual effort, titled Blue Jasmine this year, was immediately one that intrigued me and had me anxiously awaiting its arrival at my local cinema. After finally arriving I am again surprised by how taken I am with the film and the way in which it approaches its subject and above all, the craft of the writing. It has always been apparent, even to a Woody Allen-amateur like me, that the writer/director has a much stronger hand when it comes to his scripts than his direction. Still, Jasmine offers such a layered and complex character at the heart of its rather melodramatic story and is brought to life perfectly through an Oscar-worthy performance from Cate Blanchett that we don’t look to the film for answers concerning plot lines, but instead we watch it to see the path this tragic character goes down. There is never any doubt that Jasmine’s plight will not be a happy one, but as much as I’m not overly-familiar with Allen’s older works I know that much of it skews closer to comedy than any other genre and while there are a few laughs here and there throughout the film this is ultimately a very dour, very emotionally complex film to watch and invest yourself in. So much so that when the film does come to an end there is almost a sense of relief that we are finally able to break away from Jasmine’s troubles and issues and happy to encounter our own once again. This may not sound like a necessarily good time at the movies and to be honest, it’s not. Still, there is something to the titular character that draws us in where, if we were to encounter her in real life, would no doubt push us away. We are literally watching a train wreck in motion as Jasmine falls deeper and deeper into the depths of lunacy and yet we don’t feel sorry for her as much as we come to examine how she became the woman she did and that is what Allen is interested in; subtly building on the details and leaving clues for his audience to not only see Jasmine as she is in her now, almost repulsive form, but how easily she came to be that person. This is top notch writing and acting presenting a gloomy character study with the most vital of energies.
The film follows Jasmine (Blanchett), who changed her name from Janette at an early age, as she moves herself to San Francisco from her home in her beloved New York to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after losing her wealth and her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) due to the fact he is a Bernie Madoff-type character. Alec Baldwin who has now worked with Allen three times portrays the perfectly balanced crook and smooth operator skill set which he used to cheat on Jasmine consistently. Primarily set in the bay area we watch as Jasmine attempts to equip herself with the knowledge and motivation to pick up where her last life ended and move on with a certain amount of success. The problem is that Jasmine is such a snob, a demeaning, condescending person who is simply put, very mean. Ginger, on the other hand, is a hard-working mother of two who is now divorced from the boys father, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), but is having some luck in the dating game as she and Chili (Bobby Cannavale) were set to move in together before Jasmine reached out for help. Ginger and Jasmine aren’t biological sisters as they were both adopted by the same couple, but seem to have two very different memories of what it was like growing up. Ginger always saying that their parents liked Jasmine more because she, “had the better genes,” and she ran away at an early age while Jasmine remained there and enjoyed the favors of being a favorite child. Jasmine becomes repulsed by the humbleness in which these people live. As compared to the socialites she is accustomed to being in the company of, she feels so superior and so much above the likes of Ginger and Chili that she refuses to even give into their welcoming personalities and denies their offers to help her find a job as long as she possibly can. As Jasmine goes through the tribulations of putting her life back together she encounters a dentist (the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg) who pines for her affection and Dwight (a more melancholy Michael Sarsgaard than we’re accustomed to) who is a wealthy Government employee who plans to run for office and thinks Jasmine would make the perfect eye and arm candy.
Though that sums up many of the characters that are weaved through the film it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the film is trying to say. As the film opens we are witnessing the after-effects of this great tragedy that has occurred in Jasmine’s life. The point is made very early how self-centered a character she is, but only as the film goes on do we learn that this is not simply a case of a person being in love with themselves, but this is a delusional human being who is seemingly unable to let go of the past and the lifestyle she was once able to live with no accountability. She is a woman who, after having everything ripped out from under her, realizes she has nothing specific to her that makes her special and without her money, makes her no different from the people she looks down upon. She never earned anything she has, she simply accepted the lifestyle from her husband and would sign anything he asked without blinking an eye and didn’t ask any questions concerning their finances in hopes that being ignorant truly meant that she would forever find bliss. This one tragic flaw of her delusion leads to her free fall that the film is eager to document. After being so comfortable and so aware of her reputation, her clothes, her friends, she learns that it was all essentially a lie and this leaves her with nothing to grab onto, nothing to call her own and that she is unable to come back from that gives us the woman we see talking to herself on the street. What is more disturbing, and ultimately more affecting, than the fact she is talking to herself though is the idea that the way she speaks and her body language that goes along with her words come off almost as if she is rehearsing for something, maybe a dinner party where she knows she’ll need to let everyone around her know of her societal status. She is putting on that facade that she hopes will protect her from becoming what she has always feared: her sister. What makes Blue Jasmine an enthralling experience is the way Cate Blanchett portrays the character, not spelling out all of these things but building on past actions that are re-enforced through the structure of the film and delivering them compellingly through the tide of constant stress, constant drinking, and conflicting views that she seems to be swimming against.
Building around this character and the performance of Blanchett is one of the best casts Allen has put together and his impeccable script that creates a world around a character that is a different animal for Allen to tackle. Whether it be surprise performances from the likes of both Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. who are obviously more known for their stand-up skills than acting chops, but they both deliver solid performances here and especially Clay who, besides Jasmine, is the most emotionally volatile character and the comedian plays him with true, genuine, blue-collar roots and values. Sally Hawkins seems a blessing to any production she becomes a part of and the same is true here as Ginger is in the difficult situation of wanting to grow closer with her sister while also putting up with her antics and wanting to let out the rage that fills her from actions Hal took that ruined her shot at a comfortable and happy life just as much as they did Jasmine’s. While I said earlier that the film has comedic elements, but overall retains the tone of a more serious film, the majority of the comedy comes from the performance of Bobby Cannavale. Cannavale is a great character actor who I’m pleased to see whenever he shows up and he doesn’t disappoint here as he combines a goofy persona with an honest man and turns his character into a real person.
Returning to the structure, Allen goes back and forth between the present in San Francisco and Jasmine’s past with Hal in New York. The flashbacks of course inform the moments immediately following the glimpses of her former life, and with these we come to be able to better embrace what would otherwise be somebody we’d prefer to have nothing to do with. Jasmine has no sense of the divide between her world and the one she is dropped into, but there is a silver lining to the character in that she is willing to try and make something of herself and though her attempts to invigorate her sister with this same line of thinking (specifically regarding the men she allows into her life) backfires when Ginger begins a quick romance with Al (Louis C.K.), but we at least have this sense that she can’t be all bad, she is simply falling apart and trying to put herself back together the only way she knows how. Even when she begins a relationship with Sarsgaard’s character we are somewhat rooting for it to work despite the fact she is doing little more than getting herself into a similar situation as she was with Hal. The relationship may give Jasmine a renewed sense of hope, but the audience knows this is only another dark hole she is setting herself up to fall down one day. It is again in these strange ways that Allen and Blanchett are able to display a person with unforgivable character yet make us want to root for her that we do indeed wish for her to find hope, and so easily become wrapped up in the film itself.
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