Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blue Jasmine

"Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown; there's only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the street and start screaming." Awards season is declared officially open as Cate Blanchett becomes an early frontrunner for best actress with this magnificent portrayal of a woman on the edge.

A former New York socialite whose life has imploded in the wake of her husband's imprisonment (à la Bernie Madoff), Jasmine has been forced to park her Louis Vuitton luggage in the incongruous surroundings of her adoptive sister's San Francisco apartment, with corrosive results. Attempting to "move on" and make a new start (she is a past master of reinvention), Jasmine is finally out of her depth as she careers between ill-fitting employment, ill-judged social climbing and abysmal interpersonal relations. Meanwhile, writer-director Woody Allen darts back and forth between past and present, interlacing scenes of extravagant privilege with the dawning realities of a midlife meltdown beyond the protective bubble of the Upper East Side.

From the opening moments, in which she is seen compulsively unburdening herself in an arrivals terminal, to later scenes of still talkative park-bench isolation, Jasmine's increasingly desperate presence (vocal, physical, emotional) barely lets up. Constantly reaching for a drink, her mouth set in a cracked smile, eyes darting with cornered panic, Jasmine fills a room just as she fills the screen. She's an exhausting character to be with, to watch and, presumably, to play.

But Blanchett takes on the challenge like a peak-fitness runner facing a marathon, ploughing her way through 26 miles of emotional road pounding, with all the ups and downs, strains and tears, stomach turns and heartburns that that entails, a feat that occasionally leaves her (and us) gasping for breath.

Allen, too, is in fighting fit form, the pace of his output remaining fast enough to put clunkers such as Cassandra's Dream way behind him as he once again hits his stride. After the runaway success of Midnight in Paris (which took $155m worldwide – an unprecedented figure for Allen), Blue Jasmine reconfirms that his greatest triumphs may yet lie ahead. Rather than a return to the "early funny ones", about which Allen has been making bittersweet jokes since Stardust Memories, this owes more to the "later serious ones", such as Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives and, to some extent, Interiors.

There's also a hint of the madness of Melinda and Melinda, a film that asked whether the essence of life was essentially comic or tragic, offering two versions of Radha Mitchell's character, one of whom is a woman in the throes of suicidal alcoholism.

Not even Elvis had as many phantom comebacks as Woody Allen. It’s become a familiar cycle of hype and let-down: the thrilling rumour every few years that he’s broken a poor run of form; the glum discovery, at least by misery-guts here, that he’d supposedly done so with a pseud’s postcard (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), an unfilling eclair (Midnight in Paris) or a toe-curling open-top-bus vision of London (Match Point).

The first two listed there were, at least, glibly enjoyable. Blue Jasmine is different: it’s good. Woody has snapped to wakefulness, his comic and dramatic synapses firing off with an old ease that’s deeply gratifying. You needn’t even place it in Allen’s very top rank to call it his best in about two decades.

Front and centre, and in fact sloshing generously over the film’s edges, is Cate Blanchett’s fascinating lead performance, which is the most substantial in an Allen film since Gena Rowlands’s in Another Woman (1988). “You hire her and get out of the way,” Allen has modestly said of erecting this film around his technically brilliant leading lady, which is a clue to how overwhelmingly vivid her presence is.

The film’s structured as a tale of two Jasmines – a shuttling conversation between past and present time frames. Blanchett plays this bag of nerves as a Blanche DuBois for our recession-afflicted era. She’s a Park Avenue socialite, bathed in privilege, who falls on straitened circumstances, forcing her to shack up with her adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) above a Mexican café in San Francisco.

To call Woody Allen's new film a "return to form" would be misleading, since his film-making in the past 20 years has been so erratic that it's hard to know what his "form" might be anymore. I'm inclined to think of Blue Jasmine instead as a small miracle, an autumnal drama as exquisite as it is unexpected. At times you have to wonder how Allen, in his late seventies and a seeming decline, actually made it; by the end, it's clear that nobody else could have made it.

In its basic situation can be heard the distant clang of A Streetcar Named Desire, though it's neither pastiche nor reprise, just a quietly respectful tribute. Cate Blanchett takes on – magnificently inhabits – the role of Jasmine, a Park Avenue princess who's hit the skids. We first meet her on a plane, jawing away to a fellow passenger (anyone will do), then arriving in sweaty turmoil at the cramped apartment of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, her home for the next few weeks. Ginger wonders how Jasmine, broke, can afford to fly first-class and tote Vuitton luggage, though she's too kindly and accommodating to make a fuss. Jasmine, gargling vodka martinis and popping Xanax like M&Ms, would appear to be a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown – or is she already over the verge and plummeting? That she keeps muttering to herself on the street isn't a good sign.

Allen unpeels the truth by flashing back to her former life, a gilded routine of shopping, charity events and weekends in the Hamptons. Her husband, a Manhattan plutocrat, is played with slippery suavity by Alec Baldwin. He's called Hal, though from what we can gather of his business dealings he may as well have "Bernie Madoff" monogrammed on his polo shirts. Jasmine also suspects him of cheating on her, but as with his finances she sees the advantage of turning a blind eye. That's the vital theme of the film: how far self-delusion can take you before that self starts to disintegrate. The sudden transplant from East coast to West also involves a downward lurch in class. Haughty and entitled, Jasmine sniffs at Ginger's car-mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale, a Kowalski minus the sexual menace) and disdains the attempts to matchmake her with one of his uncouth pals. It's like watching Katharine Hepburn being chatted up by Lou Costello. As for the amorous dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who makes a play for her, well, pulling her own teeth would be preferable.

One of this summer's most unlikely dynamite acting duke-outs comes courtesy of Woody Allen's latest, "Blue Jasmine," a bicoastal drama with flashes of humor and transparent undertones of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that features the latest in the director's long line of compelling yet complicated leading ladies.

In this corner, joining the ranks of such delightfully difficult divas as Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") and Judy Davis ("Husbands and Wives"), is that thespian thunder from Down Under, Cate Blanchett. Swank and svelte in increasingly rumpled Chanel, she plays a disgraced, displaced and utterly delusional Manhattan socialite whose designer-brand lifestyle implodes after moving into her sister's downscale San Francisco home.

In the opposite corner is Brooklyn-bred Andrew Dice Clay, that '80s-vintage foul-mouthed Fonzie, as Jasmine's burly blue-collar ex-brother-in-law. When Clay's Augie eventually crushes the hopes of Blanchett's Jasmine—much as her investment schemer husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin, at home in slick slimeball mode), ruined Augie's financial dreams—it's as if you're watching Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski spar in an Almodovar film inspired by the travails of Ruth Madoff, wife of the infamous swindler to the stars.

Such oddball casting—heavy on big-galoot types, with an appearance by comic-of-the-moment Louis C.K.—is just one of the intoxicating reasons that Allen's latest annual offering to the cinema gods feels more substantial (a pet word tossed around by Blanchett's character) than some of his recent work. "Blue Jasmine" might have some disconnects in the plotting department, but its focus on the lies we tell ourselves and others just to get through each day packs a relevant punch.

Blanchett fabulously goes above and beyond her duties as the wilting faux flower of the title. From her sweat-drenched underarms during a particularly intense meltdown to her mesmerizing slit-eyed sensuality whenever Jasmine gets her way, the actress is a tour-de-force tinted-blonde tornado that elevates her every encounter with a member of the movie's estimable ensemble.

Basically, the Aussie Oscar winner, who just may get a chance at another trophy with this electric performance that makes an essentially despicable woman utterly fascinating as she sidesteps reality at every turn, does what few other Allen leads are able to do: Break through the artifice that often hangs over the director's films, much of it having to do with the distinctive comic cadence of his dialogue. It almost makes you forget you are watching a Woody Allen film, especially when the San Francisco scenes depict the dingy areas of the city beyond the realm of tourist traps.

No comments:

Post a Comment