Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Reading a plot description of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine could lead one to believe the director has made a film about something real happening in American life, about the years when the American economy exploded around us and left so many people struggling to figure out new lives. In truth Blue Jasmine is only slightly connected to the economic crisis. Allen’s latest is an uneven comedy of downward mobility and an indictment of what Allen believes to be the false promise of a certain kind of life. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett in a superbly controlled performance) is a widowed New Yorker who is moving to San Francisco to live with her blue-collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). In the opening scene we catch Jasmine unfolding her life to a stranger on a plane, and we get the first intimations that something is off-kilter with this woman whom from all outward appearances is the picture of sophistication. . The backstory is laid out in a series of flashbacks: Jasmine and her late husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) lived it up or years on Park Avenue, but their lifestyle was built on money bilked from investors and shell games with the federal government. Hal is arrested and commits suicide while the now-broke Jasmine (unaware of Hal’s crimes) must restart her life with the working-class sister she feels no connection to.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is a high-wire act; each layer of Jasmine’s ongoing emotional crisis is carefully detailed and a little different from on the one that came before. The movie that Allen has constructed around Blanchett isn’t as strong as her work though. Jasmine and Ginger, only sisters by adoption, are so unconnected  that it’s hard to believe Hawkins’ earthy Ginger could ever be influenced by Jasmine. Ginger sees a future with her good-natured Everyman of a boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and the subplot where she is tempted to throw him over for a stranger (Louis CK) because of Jasmine’s disdain for Chili never feels believable. Jasmine bumbles along with a job working for a flirtatious dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and vague plans to become an interior decorator, but most of these scenes aren’t played for laughs. Blue Jasmine isn’t a soak the rich comedy.  It’s only when a chance meeting with an aspiring politician (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jasmine an opportunity to return to her former lifestyle that Allen reveals his true intentions. Allen is working in his serious mode here, putting capital letters in front of his Themes and his characters’ Emotions. Why is Jasmine such a mess? When we learn the answer it comes as a shock to learn that we’re meant to understand that Jasmine’s relationship with Hal isn’t an obstacle on the road to a new life but rather something that she feels guilty about her role in ending. That’s right, we’re watching a movie about Guilt, and it’s guilt that has driven Jasmine into her fragile mental state. If Allen had kept to this idea and hadn’t loaded the movie with a lot of class-collision scenes and broad performances he might have been on to something powerful, but too much of Blue Jasmine is busy and confused.

Part of the critical discussion around Blue Jasmine involves parallels to A Streetcar Named Desire, and while there are superficial similarities involving the mismatched sisters I don’t think the comparison amounts to much. Blanche DuBois, like many Williams characters, is a reflection of how Williams felt oppressed bysociety’s misunderstandings while Jasmine is brought low by her husband’s very real financial crimes,. Also, there’s sex in Blue Jasmine but no sexual tension. Woody Allen, working with his customary ambition, has wasted a strong leading performance in a muddled movie. I’d be all for Allen and Blanchett giving it another try.

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