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Friday, August 23, 2013

Chris's Review: Woody Allen shines again with ‘Blue Jasmine’


Woody Allen has been on a pretty consistent one-film-a-year streak for the past two-plus decades. Sometimes great, sometimes not, sometimes just okay, Allen has been more miss-than-hit later in his career. Either way, as soon as those trademark black-and-white titles appear and the jazz music kicks in, you know you are settling in to watch a Woody Allen film. The only question is: which way it will go?

Over the years, Allen has produced both great comedies and great dramas, but some of his best efforts have been a workable mixture of both. His latest film, Blue Jasmine, is just that. Billed as a drama – which is mostly correct – the film is also a fish-out-of-water comedy still rife with Allen’s trademark wit, cynicism, and droll humor. Most importantly, the film is the prolific filmmaker’s best work since 2005’s Match Point (and remember, 8 years ago means 8 movies – and that includes the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris).

As A Streetcar Named Desire by way of Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine follows a snobbish, once-wealthy woman in the midst of nervous breakdown as she deals with her modest new life in San Francisco living with her lowly sister. Apparently penniless (though she can still afford the first class plane ticket), Jasmine shows up at her sister’s tiny apartment with not only her matching designer luggage in tow, but also a heap of psychological baggage as well.

As with all Woody Allen films, the dialogue and characters standout. Allen’s script is simple and a little cliché addled, but as sharp as ever and wonderfully structured. Told in flashbacks, the film slowly reveals more and more of the backstory, making parallels between her life then and her life now. The dichotomy between the fancy, New York elite half and the working class, West Coast life is abundant and presents a pseudo-class warfare on screen that often comes to a head between characters. The stress builds in both story arcs simultaneously until they erupt with separate, but mirrored psychotic episodes. The scandal that brought her down a peg is not the real story, but rather the aftermath and her ultimate unraveling are at the forefront.

Like Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois (who Cate Blanchett memorably played on stage just a few years ago), Jasmine is fragile and a little bit oblivious, but certainly plays up her innocence and troubles for extra sympathy – she is much more aware than she lets on. Drowning in an endless stream of Stoli martinis and self-pity, the clearly depressed Jasmine is a more heart-breaking lead character than we are used to seeing in a Woody Allen film.

And despite all her fractured ego and off-putting haughty attitude, Blanchett is still able to wring a wealth of emotion and sympathy out of this broken character. In the end, you cannot help but like her, even if it is mostly out of pity. Add the fact that Blanchett gives one of the best overall performances of the year so far and Blue Jasmine is off to a terrific start.

Jasmine is charmed and cheated (in more ways than one) by her sleazy, Bernie Madoff-like husband, Hal – who is suavely played by a deliciously deceitful Alec Baldwin. Her put-upon sister, Ginger, is feisty, yet lovingly brought to life by the underappreciated Sally Hawkins. As if she did not have enough to worry about with babysitting Jasmine and her two sons, Ginger also has to deal with the three highly dysfunctional men in her life. First, there is her gruff ex-husband (a fairly reserved Andrew Dice Clay) who blames Jasmine for a bad business deal and their eventual divorce. Then, there is her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), who is hopelessly immature and is despised by Jasmine from the get go. Finally, a new man her life (Louis C.K.) seems perfect, but like the rest of the film shows, life is never that easy and most of us are never that lucky. Hawkins aptly fills Streetcar's Stella role and the Dice Man and Cannavale double up on the Stanley Kowalski archetype.

The film has even more standouts in smaller roles, such as Michael Stuhlbarg as an overbearing and lecherous dentist and Peter Sarsgaard as the potential new man in Jasmine’s life. They all add up to one of Allen’s best ensembles in recent years too, which should not be a surprise given the overall success of the film itself.

On a break from his European adventures of late, Blue Jasmine is set in San Francisco, a city Allen loves and has used before (Take the Money and Run and Play It Again, Sam). In a slightly unrelated note, it is a little bewildering that the filmmaker has never set or shot a movie in my hometown of New Orleans, especially since he is known lover of jazz and the city certainly has a bit of that European flair he is so fond of. You would think a Streetcar Named Desire riff would present the perfect opportunity, but oh well, maybe one day.

* * * * out of 5 stars 


   This review and others are also available on my page, here.

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