Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: "Blue Jasmine"

Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 98 minutes

Remove a few small items from the frame like cell phones, and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine could take place almost anywhere in the past 50 years. There are no mentions of social networking or tablet computers, and the music (as always) is made up of jazz standards. In essence, Allen's latest could easily be a product of his output from the mid-70s and early 80s. Nowadays, Allen's films that receive a positive critical consensus often feel like minor pleasures, and a far cry from the good old days of his prime. By contrast, Blue Jasmine, despite its share of small flaws, feels like the first Allen film in years that feels like it belongs in the company of Annie Hall and Manhattan

A pseudo-retelling of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," Blue Jasmine still feels very comfortably like its own story. Whereas Williams' play (and its film version) only included the briefest mentions of the past, Allen spends much of his trim film jumping between past and present. This juxtaposition, in which we witness the rise and fall of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), lends the film an angle that makes it more relevant for a 21st century audience. When she arrives in San Francisco to stay with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine has more than her fair share of baggage. Allen, wisely, uses his flashbacks to gradually unpack it over the course of the narrative. 

The jumping between past and present could have undercut the film's development, but Allen's script is smart enough to use the two time periods to build on each other. Mostly known (and sometimes criticized) for his focus on the upper classes, his look at Blanchett and Hawkins' characters proves surprisingly well-rounded. In the end, both the fallen-from-grace Jasmine and the rough-around-the-edges Ginger have their share of problems, yet their differences ultimately make them incompatible of really helping each other. Ginger, playing the Stella to Jasmine's Blanche, gives Jasmine a place to stay after she loses everything, but that's about all she can really offer. By the time Jasmine leaves behind her cheating husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, effectively used) and flees to the West Coast in ruins, the damage has already been done. 

Very much like Ms. DuBois, Jasmine has a bit of a problem when it comes to nervous breakdowns, certainly not helped by her newfound addiction to booze and pills. In a nice referential touch, the titular character is named for Blanche's favorite scent, which lends an appropriately effervescent connection between "Streetcar" and Allen's bitter comedy of manners and malaises. The most obvious similarity here, basic premise aside, comes down to the leading lady, and Allen's transition could not prove more spot on for the 21st century. Whereas Blanche was a product of the plantation world, Jasmine comes from good genetic stock and managed to land herself a rich husband to whisk her off up to the 1%. 

As such, when Jasmine finally descends upon San Francisco, she brings with her a haughtiness that clashes with the earthier working class. Though Ginger does her best to put up with Jasmine's self-centered neurotics, her newest boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, always an enjoyable presence) can't muster up the same amount of sympathy. Jasmine is far past counting on the kindness of strangers, and that's putting it mildly. In these clashes between the haves and have-nots, Allen's script achieves a more expansive vision, even as it functions as a freeform character study. Yet because his principal characters are sharply drawn, the relatively uneventful narrative still possesses a sense of free-flowing movement. 

At the film's core, of course, is Blanchett's Jasmine. The regal Australian actress seizes the role by the throat and never lets go. Having spent time performing on stage, and largely avoiding lead roles, it's electrifying to see her back in the spotlight, more alive than ever. It's a very big character, filled with nervous tics and mood swings galore, but Blanchett finds enough room in moments both big and small to avoid overacting. 

Sally Hawkins proves a nice counterpart as the film's second largest role, her earthy and casual turn an appropriate counterweight to Blanchett's alcohol-soaked theatrics. Despite the flashiness of Blanchett's powerful turn, Hawkins is never overshadowed to the point where her scenes are a distraction. As Allen charts the paths of both sisters, he remains remarkably balanced in exploring both women, who are two wildly different sides of the same coin. A host of supporting roles, filled out by Baldwin, Cannavale, Louis CK, and Andrew Dice Clay are also handled effectively as they prop up the rest of the story. 

Like Tennessee Williams' work, the performances and writing of Blue Jasmine take a few minutes to adjust to. The film may not have the full-blown melodrama that characterized Williams' work, but there are aspects of Blue Jasmine that feel more than a little heightened. As for Allen, where his script provides engaging material for the cast, his directing can be a little clunky. As effortless as the transitions from past to present seem in retrospect, there are times when transitions come off as rushed. Allen, who has been working steadily for years now, occasionally lets his need to churn out an annual film get the best of him. In the first 20 minutes or so, the performers already appear ready for take off, while Allen's direction feels in need of further refinement. However, once Blue Jasmine gets its hooks in, it becomes an immensely satisfying comedy, with just the right touches of darkness and Allen-esque neuroses. 

The prolific director is already gearing up to shoot a film for next summer, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Yet even though the director has already moved on to his next project, it's worth taking the time to really savor Blue Jasmine beyond Blanchett's stellar performance. This film, awkward opening moments aside, feels like a glimpse at the director in top form. More than just "this year's Woody Allen movie," Blue Jasmine is a funny, smartly-observed character study that is at once perfectly contemporary, yet still timeless in its themes and subject matter. 

Grade: B+

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