Tuesday, August 6, 2013

BLUE JASMINE Is Woody Allen at The Top of His Game


- I've enjoyed Woody Allen's spate of recent films, but man, Blue Jasmine reminds us why Allen isn't just some eccentric uncle who makes amusingly nostalgic romps, but a still-vital filmmaker with real bite. Personally, I think Blue Jasmine is Allen's best film in years. It's very funny at times, but also has some real profundity, some real darkness, and some real, well ... "realness." Look, Woody Allen is a creative voice who's always had and always will have his eccentricities. But Blue Jasmine is his first film in ages that feels like it takes place not just in Woody's world, but in the here and now. It's saying something about the moment we live in - giving it a vitality that I think eluded even Woody's more well-received recent movies, like Midnight In Paris. At the same time, the movie is absolutely stacked with fantastic performances, including a leading-actress turn from Cate Blanchett that's likely the best of the year so far. This one caught me off-guard - it's not just one of the best Woody Allen films of the last decade, or two - but one heck of a movie in general.

BLUE JASMINE centers around Blanchett's Jasmine, a woman who, for a long time, lived a very calculated life of upper-crust privilege. I say calculated because Jasmine very deliberately went about molding herself into this high society woman - marrying a wealthy investor Hal (Alec Baldwin), firmly entrenching herself among the New York elites, and crafting an image of herself - from her clothes, to her way of speaking, to her name (Jasmine isn't the name she was born with) - that exudes upper class 1 percent-ism. The catch is that maintaining her perch atop high society meant being willfully ignorant of what was going on right in front of her eyes. Hal pampered and spoiled Jasmine, but he was also up to plenty of no-good. He was raking in money via a Ponzi-like scheme, scamming people into investments that didn't add up. Meanwhile, he was sleeping with seemingly every woman in sight, from his fitness instructor to Jasmine's friends. And Jasmine, terrified of losing it all, turns a blind eye. That is, until things reach a breaking point. Ultimately, Hal is exposed as a fraud and a cheat, goes to jail, and Jasmine loses everything. All of a sudden, her modern-day Blanche Dubois is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Well, not strangers, exactly. While Jasmine was climbing the ladder of class and wealth in New York, her sister (not by blood - both were adopted), Ginger (Sally Hawkins), was busy living a humble blue-collar life. At first, she was married to the slovenly Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). But after his investment in Hal's Ponzi scheme went south, Augie parted ways with Ginger. Now, she's with Chili (Bobby Canavale), a slightly volatile grease-monkey cut from a similar cloth. The two live in San Francisco, where Ginger lives in a humble apartment with her two sons. And that's where Jasmine, penniless and aimless (though still sporting designer clothes and luggage) ends up - with nowhere else to go, and no one else to turn to except the sister who she long neglected.

When I called the film biting, I did so because it's both a takedown of upper-class privilege, but also a cautionary tale about settling for less when one probably deserves better. Basically, Allen sort of brilliantly looks at both upper and lower class lifestyles, and bravely points out that, in reality, neither is quite so great or admirable if built on a foundation of malaise and self-denial. Jasmine is, for a while, totally lost once she has to fend for herself and carve her own path. Ginger, meanwhile, staunchly defends her less glamorous, more carefree lifestyle - even as she falls in with men who are, in many ways, losers. Jasmine's taste in men isn't much better. She stayed with Hal for years despite his moral bankruptcy, and later, she latches on to Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a snobbish upper-cruster who sees Jasmine less as a fully-formed woman, and more as a would-be-wife who will help further his political aspirations.

None of this is black-and-white or cut-and-dried. As Jasmine and Ginger circle each other and analyze each other's lives, both have moments where they seem to speak truth, and both have moments where they seem hopelessly and even comically misguided. Even Jasmine's somewhat-valid criticisms of her sister are often undermined by Jasmine's instability - she's suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown, and has frequent moments of pill-popping hyper-anxiety. She talks to herself, carrying out extended conversations with no one in particular. She makes plans that don't quite make sense. And she is a habitual liar, unable to admit to others or to herself the truth about her life or who she was and is.

All of this is brought to life in a stunning performance from Cate Blanchett, who is just a whirlwind of raw emotion, just-barely-holding-it-together anxiety, and desperate determination to somehow course-correct and make things right. Blanchett's performance is amazing in that it veers effortlessly between comedy and tragedy. She picks her spots of when to let Jasmine's over-the-top obliviousness get played for laughs, and when to mine her mental anguish for genuine pathos. This is a big, over-the-top performance, but it's also riddled with nuance - little moments that make this just an incredibly fully-formed character, wholly inhabited by Blanchett. It's one of the singular performances in an already iconic career.

Sally Hawkins is also quite good, bringing city-girl spunk to Ginger and making her incredibly likable, if not tragically naive. But man, BLUE JASMINE is just filled with terrific supporting turns. One of the standouts has got to be Andrew Dice Clay as Auggie. I haven't seen Clay in many acting roles previously, but the guy pours his heart into this one. The notorious comedian seems to channel his real-life frustrations and world-weariness right into Augie, creating an incredibly authentic-feeling character. The trick that Clay pulls is that when we first meet Augie, he's a funny but off-putting schlub - a gruff, thickly-accented New Yawker who seems like bad news. But somehow, rough-and-tumble Clay becomes, in a strange way, the movie's moral conscious. He's the one guy in the movie who is content to just work hard and do what he can to make something of himself, without any shortcuts. It's telling that Augie and Ginger's ill-fated investment with Hal came about because they won some money in the lottery. One of the biggest morals of Blue Jasmine is to not trust that which comes without having been truly earned.

Louis CK also pops up in a really interesting supporting role, as a seemingly well-meaning nice-guy who tries to court Ginger. CK plays the part to perfection, and there are some great moments between him and Sally Hawkins. There's also a great role in the movie for one of my favorite actors, Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays a dentist who offers Jasmine a job as his receptionist. I won't spoil how their professional relationship plays out, but I will say that Stuhlbarg again shows his knack for awkward humor with this part. Meanwhile, Stuhlbarg's Boardwalk Empire cast-mate Bobby Cannavale (who was awesome on the show this past season), is also quite good here as another unstable alpha-male type. He's oddly still sporting his 1920's-style haircut from Boardwalk in the film, but I guess it sort of fits Chili's role as a sort of throwback man's-man type who likes beer, boxing, and hitting the town with his group of comically thuggish friends. Alec Baldwin is also excellent as Hal - he does sort of a less-comic version of 30 Rock's uber-confident Jack Donaghy - he plays Hal as a guy who seems to have it all figured out, but with hints that the cracks in his master plan are starting to show. My one question mark was honestly with Peter Sarsgaard. It might just be me, but I found his character to be almost cartoonishly snooty and annoying, even though the movie treats him pretty seriously, and Sarsgaard never really seems to act in a way that's at all comic or self-aware. He just felt to me less like a character I should be taking seriously, and more like a guy who should have been the villain in an 80's John Hughes teen movie, were he a few decades younger. I think there's a weird discrepancy here, where Sarsgaard has a John Malkovich-like over-the-topness about him - which makes him great for playing super-villains and whatnot, but less suited for more straightforward characters.

Sarsgaard's character is, luckily, one of the few traces in Blue Jasmine of the sort of weird Woody-isms that tend to pop up in Allen's latter-day films. Perhaps it's a symptom of getting older, but Allen's more recent films take place in modern times, but have a lot of weird anachronisms. It's like Allen flirts with trying to make things current, but then just says "to hell with it." And so we get Sarsgaard's straight-from-the-80's character, or a key plot point about how Jasmine needs to enroll in a computer class, just so she can enroll in an online course. Even though these are minor points in the grand scheme of things, I find it frustrating when everything else feels so timely and relevant, and clicks so well, and then these weird quirks come along and take you out of the movie a bit.

Semi-intrusive Woody-isms aside, BLUE JASMINE really is sort of a remarkable film in the Allen cannon. It's his 48th (!) film, but markedly different from anything he's done before - weaving expertly between comedy and drama, functioning as both smartly-observed social satire and heartrending character study. Woody tells this story with style and texture. He smartly uses flashbacks to show us key chapters from Jasmine's old life with Hal, and uses said flashbacks to emphasize her fractured state of mind in the present. Cate Blanchett, for her part, knocks it out of the park. And the movie is filled with applause-worthy performances, both from expected, always-reliable actors (Stuhlbarg, Louis CK, Baldwin), and unexpected surprises (Dice Clay). There's a fire here, an underbelly of emotion and intensity, that's totally gripping. At the same time, there are funny moments that show us the absurdity of these characters and the lives they've crafted for themselves. Sometimes, a new Woody Allen film comes out, and it serves as a nice reminder that the guy's still kicking, but not much more. This time, it's much more than that. This is a reminder that Woody was, and still, sometimes, is, one of the best filmmakers working today.

My Grade: A-

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