Jul 30, 2013

Blue Jasmine

I am ambivalent about Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's loose adaptation, or rather re-purposing, of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to current day San Francisco and New York. The good news is we are not getting Allen's by now customary two-hour European travelogue. He is back stateside. His cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarrobe likes warm, golden tones (a bit too much for my taste), and as is the case in every Woody Allen movie, even the title character's sister; a cashier in a supermarket, has an apartment that many upwardly mobile professionals would kill for, full of well-curated tchotchkes (production design is by the great Santo Loquasto).
Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a modern-day version of Blanche Dubois, in full mental breakdown mode. She is astonishing, but I was surprised by the unrelenting ferocity of her collapse. This ain't the precious Southern wallflower with delusions of grandeur, who teeters perilously between gentility and the brink of madness, as I understand Blanche. This is a woman who is already completely out of control, and if it wasn't for the fact that Allen has made a career of depicting such women in different levels of hysteria, I would probably be less bothered by her. My question is, does Allen feel empathy for Jasmine? Is she a character that we can empathize with or is she designed to rile us against the haughty indifference of the rich? She certainly seems to feel empathy for no one but herself.
For Allen introduces a welcome twist: Jasmine is married to a Wall Street crook a la Bernie Madoff (Alec Baldwin). They live in splendor until they don't, and she has to come and live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in some shabby chic hood in San Francisco. Allen is incapable of having an ugly city in his films, but let's face it, you can do much worse than Frisco for a fall from grace.
Still, Jasmine's face as she walks into Ginger's apartment is one of the most priceless looks of withering contempt ever committed to film. Blanchett has some great moments, and because she is a spectacular actress, who can be utterly over the top and still be mesmerizing, I am sorry to say there is little nuance to the character. She is an alcoholic, pill-popping wreck, and although it is, at times, horrifying fun to watch her protean self-involvement, she never really tries to change. Blanchett plays her straight, so she is funny in a brittle, tragic way. To her credit, she refuses to do comedic shtick and sticks to the pathos. It's a bravura performance.
Whereas Blanche Dubois uses her delusion as a tool to survive her downfall, Jasmine is not delusional (except in that she talks to herself); she is a nervous wreck, which is less interesting. And then there are the little issues with verisimilitude. I can buy that Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett are adopted sisters, but I never understood where they came from. In a movie about class, this is important. Did Jasmine marry up and become a snotty dame? Is her hauteur adopted or naturally regal? I would have liked to know.
Still, even though the movie rambles a bit, there are a couple of great scenes, particularly one where Jasmine babysits her chubby nephews, and a very funny scene that thwarts the awaited ring of a suitor. All you need to know about the class abyss in America is in every scene where Baldwin and Blanchett have to share the frame with their poor relatives. The stiff, falsely courteous body language of the rich, their unfailingly polite but unspoken distaste and embarrassment are blatant and painful. And watching Blanchett is like going on a demented rollercoaster of pain. She keeps the movie from its own flabbiness, and, somehow, her character a beat away from caricature.
There are many little pleasures in the film, best one of which is Andrew Dice Clay's perfect turn as the sister's ex-husband. One is equally happy in the lovely company of Louis C.K. as a schlubby Don Juan; a very funny, sweet Bobby Cannavale as Chili, despite the lame name, a much nicer version of Stanley Kowalski; Michael Stuhlbarg, pitch perfect as a creepy dentist; and the suave Peter Sarsgaard. The males are more grounded than the females. As stereotypical as they are, they all bring a measure of reality that the female characters lack. Yes, as far as late Woody Allen movies go, this one is a tad richer, a tad less of a trifle. It is an astringently bittersweet comedy, and not much of a comedy for poor Jasmine, down and out, and adrift in the world for looking the other way.

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