Thursday, May 1, 2014

Blue Jasmine

SPOILERS!

The variability of Woody Allen's recent resume has taken his once-a-year films off my "Must Automatically See" list for some time. I've bemoaned his seeming phoning in of a lot of his pictures in the past 14 years, though every once in a while there is a MATCH POINT to remind us of his capabilities. 2013's BLUE JASMINE is another Allen film that stands out at this late date, that is worth the effort, one that travels very worn territory in the Woody oeuvre, but is skillfully produced and features a dead-on turn by Cate Blanchett (who won an Oscar for her work) that is as good as any performance in the director's previous.

Blanchett is in fact the reason to see BLUE JASMINE, to watch her so thoroughly own the title role, a profoundly troubled middle-aged woman who finds herself living with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in a modest San Francisco flat after her high life in the Hamptons crashes and burns. It is quite a comedown for a woman accustomed to the finer things, once afforded by her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), shown in flashback. We learn of Jasmine's denial in the fallout early on, when despite her being flat broke arrives in California and announces that she just flew first class.

Jasmine is never quite able to accept her downward spiral, her lost affluence, even as life hands her one cold reality after another. An unskilled woman trying to eke a living, to take what she considers menial tasks. Such as her lowly position as a receptionist in a dentist's office.  Insult added to injury when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes a pass at her.

Allen's screenplay treads the predictable; its set-ups often so clear to predict certain disaster. Jasmine finally begins to find happiness with an affluent widower named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who she meets at a party. She immediately paints a fantasy of herself, setting up a house a cards that will inevitably topple. But how else can it be for such a tragic character?

The cast of BLUE JASMINE is well selected. This includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's crude ex-husband, who surprises with a disciplined portrayal; a controlled, toned down sort-of version of his old stand-up persona. Hawkins entirely holds her own against Blanchett and the other actors offer strong support.  Some have felt that Blanchett is over the top, a bit too much. I disagree. I've met women like Jasmine, some still in their guilded cages, oblivious to the mundanities of life. Then those who've lost it all, clueless as to how to function, still living in a pampered dream. A bit like Norma Desmond, flatly refusing to face change, retreating to some happy place, perhaps even sitting and singing to make it all go away. Perhaps like Jasmine.

Another drama might offer, at story's end, a ray of hope for Jasmine, at least a hint of reconciliation with the other characters. But Woody Allen is a realist, perhaps even a fatalist, and his conclusion is as realistic as it is bleak. By the last scene, there are no hugs, no lessons learned, to quote the m.o. of the Seinfeld sitcom. I felt pity and sadness for Jasmine. But I did also hope for her.

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