Friday, August 9, 2013

Blue Jasmine: Superb study in self-delusion

Blue Jasmine (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, mature thematic material and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.9.13

From the first scene, we can’t take our eyes off her: an unholy cross between Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, layered with the bland contempt that comes only from Manhattan socialites.

During a visit to New York, working-class Ginger (Sally Hawkins, right) encourages her
husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, center right) to seek investment advice from the
wealthy and privileged Hal (Alec Baldwin), an aggressive Wall Street shark married to
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett). Ginger figures there's no downside; after all, Jasmine is her
sister, and nothing is more important than family ... right?
Cate Blanchett’s title character in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a frightening creature: a woman so accustomed to aristocratic excess that she cannot fathom existence among the 99 percent. Yet she’s also a figure to be pitied, and that’s the hypnotic magic of Blanchett’s performance: We simultaneously loathe and feel sorry for her, wondering how somebody who once was an ordinary little girl, could have grown into an adult so cut off from her humanity.

She’s Marie Antoinette or Eva Braun: a woman who can’t precisely be described as evil, because she really don’t know any better. Morality, integrity, loyalty, simple kindness ... these are qualities suited only for the common herd. Jasmine swans above such flawed behavior; she lives only for her own tightly compartmentalized pleasures, and for the attention lavished upon her by a doting and über-wealthy husband.

Allen has written really close to the bone this time, with an unflinching dissection of the privileged, often vacuous wives who proudly stand alongside the Bernie Madoffs, as they blithely screw the rest of us. Do these women even perceive, let alone understand, the monsters they take to their beds each night?

Allen has resurrected his career, phoenix-like, more times than I can count, and he’s once again on a roll: perhaps the best thus far. Midnight in Paris was both clever and delightful: an adult fantasy that brought him another well-deserved Academy Award. Blue Jasmine, in turn, will do the same for Blanchett. I don’t care what comes out between now and Dec. 31; nobody will top her bravura performance in this film.

She’s nothing short of amazing, and Blue Jasmine stands among Allen’s finest works.

We meet Jasmine during a plane flight from New York to San Francisco, where she has arranged to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), while attempting to pull her life back together. Jasmine’s personality is revealed during this airborne prologue, for she has trapped a seat mate — an elderly woman too polite to object — into enduring a litany of self-centered justification.

We don’t get many pertinent details, merely enough to understand the sheer torture that the oblivious Jasmine is inflicting on her temporary companion.

Things get worse, when Jasmine barely is able to navigate a taxi ride to Ginger’s modest apartment. We learn that Jasmine hasn’t had much use for Ginger until this moment, when no other options are available. Ginger is the working-class yin to Jasmine’s elegant, socialite yang: the country mouse worried that her citified relation will look about this small but attractive home, and find fault with everything. Which Jasmine does.

Jasmine has fled the newspaper headlines and TV sound bites that have hounded her since husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was arrested by the FBI and indicted for unspecified — but clearly serious — financial shenanigans that hurt many, many people. As we gradually learn, the victims included Ginger and her former husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), who lost a lottery windfall that could have brightened their lives considerably.

The fallout also torched Ginger’s marriage, yet she still opens her home to Jasmine, insisting — to all who comment — that Jasmine cannot be blamed for Hal’s misdeeds. Right from the start, Ginger doth protest too much, and her words ring false. Her new boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), clearly shares such doubts; he probes with the obvious questions that Jasmine has tried to leave behind. Did she really not know?

We wonder, as well.

Although pleading destitution, complaining about how the courts “ruined her life” by stripping her of all assets, forcing her to sell “everything” just to survive, Jasmine nonetheless arrives toting Louis Vuitton luggage. When Ginger, bewildered, tentatively suggests that her sister’s insistence on flying first class might have been financially unwise, Jasmine flies into a rage; she couldn’t possibly have endured the trip in coach.

Jasmine’s saga subsequently unfolds in the present and the past, the latter granting us revealing glimpses of her life with Hal, pre-crisis, and the depths of her self-absorption. When Ginger and Augie fly to New York for a weeklong visit, during their happier times, Jasmine barely spares them a few hours; she’s always so busy, please understand, with the constant demands on her pampered life.

And we cringe, wanting to look away, wanting somebody to slap this useless creature upside the face, but knowing that’ll never happen. Yet we’re unable to look away, fascinated by the callous depths to which this woman sinks, every minute of every day.

Blanchett has plenty of experience with imperious roles, ranging from history’s Elizabeth I to fantasy’s Galadriel, not to mention hard-chargers such as Veronica Guerin and her spot-on impersonation of Katharine Hepburn. Here, Blanchett employs her intrinsic charisma to less palatable purposes: When fully erect, in command of her surroundings, Jasmine delivers every speech, every response, as if the listener should cherish each word as a gift from the gods.

The sad part: Ginger buys into it. Hook, line and belittled, browbeaten sinker.

Blanchett has the flashy title role, but Hawkins matches her, scene for scene. She’s a British stalwart likely remembered from her starring role in 2010’s Made in Dagenham, along with choice parts in recent films such as Never Let Me Go, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.

Hawkins’ Ginger is the ultimate enabler: She responds to the demands of family ties, even when they’re not deserved. She cowers in Jasmine’s shadow, flinching even before the next thinly veiled insult. The irony, of course, is that Ginger possesses all the nobler virtues that Jasmine wouldn’t even perceive, let alone possess; this working-class San Francisco woman has carved out a successful and reasonably happy life, while raising two rambunctious boys (who regard Jasmine akin to a creature from Neptune).

By rights, Ginger should despise Jasmine ... and yet she tries to accommodate this fragile, alien creature’s increasingly manic mood swings. That’s the other issue in this tragic tale: Jasmine is damaged goods even before she lands in San Francisco, and she gets worse, as days turn into weeks. Not since Catherine Deneuve went bonkers when left alone in that spooky apartment, in 1965’s Repulsion, has a woman come unglued so persuasively on screen.

Despite this — despite knowing full well that Jasmine is toxic — Ginger responds to her sister’s barbed “compliments,” and, God forbid, tries to mold herself into a similarly “refined” woman. This means accepting Jasmine’s disgust over the “losers” Ginger has hooked up with: the ultimate hypocrisy, since Hal was the biggest loser of all. Correctly perceiving that he stands to lose Ginger in the face of such poisonous hostility, Chili begins to panic.

And so it goes, getting worse and worse, as details are filled in, and fresh traumas erupt, and we gradually get answers to key questions.

Allen’s films always are impeccably cast, and this one’s no exception; although Blanchett and Hawkins stand out, they’re in excellent company. Baldwin is spot-on as a smarmy Wall Street predator, and both Cannavale and Clay are persuasively credible as good-hearted lugs with limited means and flash-point tempers, but genuine love for the woman who has touched their hearts.

Peter Sarsgaard pops up in the second act as Dwight, a career diplomat on the relationship rebound, who is smitten by Jasmine’s beauty, sophistication and style. (By now, we know these traits are artifice; the vulnerable Dwight, alas, can’t see past her surface.) Comedian Louis C.K. plays Al, an amiable guy who catches Ginger’s attention when Jasmine drags her to an upscale party.

Most of this film is relentlessly serious, given its nature: a tone Allen has delivered quite well a few times before, recently with 2005’s Match Point. He shouldn’t be typed as a “comedy director,” and Blue Jasmine isn’t a funny film. That said, Allen takes an odd detour into pure burlesque, when Jasmine reluctantly accepts work as a dentist’s receptionist, and then discovers that her boss — Michael Stuhlbarg, as Dr. Flicker — hired her only because he’s hot for her.

Stuhlbarg can be viewed here as the bumbling, overly talkative Woody Allen surrogate, an exaggerated archetype that simply doesn’t belong here.

Similarly, the 1920s and ’30s jazz classics with which Allen peppers so many of his soundtracks — the sort of tunes by now firmly associated with Allen’s plain, white-text-on-black-background title credits — feel completely wrong in this, a firmly contemporary storyline. OK, I grant the ironic counterpoint a particular song title supplies to a given scene, and the fact that Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” evokes happier times for the increasingly fragile Jasmine ... but as a thematic whole, these ancient swing band hits occasionally take us out of the story.

These relatively minor issues prevent the film from being perfect, but it’s still an extremely powerful indictment of casual, heartless entitlement, fueled by sensational actors who wring every drop of dramatic juice from Allen’s sharp-edged script.

You’ll not forget this one any time soon. It lingers, haunting our thoughts in the best possible way.

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