‘Blue Jasmine’: Woody just gets better

July 24, 2013

blue jasmine

Approaching the age of 80, with more than 40 feature films under his belt, Woody Allen continues to astonish, finding new ways to surprise audiences with each year’s film.

With “Blue Jasmine,” he shows once again that he is a master of texture and tone – of creating complex, compelling work that never quite goes where you expect it to, even as it draws upon source material as familiar as Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Allen is our most reliable and adventurous independent filmmaker, in the truest sense of the word. Having wowed audiences (and won an Oscar) with 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” he all but tossed off the frothy, divertingly insubstantial “To Rome With Love.” Now he comes back with “Blue Jasmine,” perhaps his most affecting work since his “Crimes & Misdemeanors”/”Husbands and Wives” period in the early 1990s.

It’s fascinating to watch Allen both celebrate Williams’ classic tragedy and turn it on its ear. Where Blanche Dubois was a self-deluding former teacher in reduced circumstances mourning the death of a lover who couldn’t bear the weight of his sexual secrets, Allen’s Jasmine (played to an Oscar-worthy fare-thee-well by the luminously fragile Cate Blanchett) is something else altogether.

Oh, her husband is dead – and she’s come to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose boyfriend is the earthy, sexy Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine is penniless, as it turns out, trying to get back on her feet. Having never finished her degree, she’s thinking about going back to school, perhaps to become an interior decorator.

For backstory, Allen grafts an entire history told in flashback that is as interesting as the story in the foreground. As he moves back and forth in time, we learn that Jasmine was married to the handsome, dashing Hal (Alec Baldwin), an investment banker who, it quickly becomes apparent, could be Bernard Madoff. He and Jasmine live the high life, with a lavish Fifth Avenue pre-war apartment, homes in the Hamptons, vacations on the continent, limos, drivers, the whole package.

Present-day Jasmine is having trouble making the adjustment. She was paupered by the scandal that eventually broke over Hal’s finances – and yet she plays the victim as well. Allen, however, reveals her for what she is: self-absorbed, unwilling to ask questions about Hal’s finances (or philandering) until the evidence is too monumental to ignore.

Is she just another pawn in Hal’s scheme – or an accomplice? Is willful ignorance the same thing as not knowing? Can you ever really put the past behind you when that past includes both mistreating and abusing the trust of those with whom you now need to be closest?

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That’s part of what Allen is getting at here. Jasmine and Hal haven’t just hurt Hal’s investors. They also convinced Ginger and her then-husband Augie (a very restrained Andrew Dice Clay) to sink the lottery windfall they’ve won into an investment with Hal, instead of using it for Augie to start his own contracting business.

So Jasmine is that most conflicted of creatures: someone trying to get others to forget the part of the past in which her actions caused them harm – but also someone who wants to cling to the fond memories she has of the glory days. Never mind that those glory days were financed by stealing from others.

Allen finds ways to expand upon Williams’ plot, to modernize it without losing its central struggle between memory and reality, between what should have been and what actually was. San Francisco serves as an evocative substitute for New Orleans, offering the blend of the street life and the remove of wealth, whether in Marin County or lavish property overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

By fusing Williams’ romantic tragedy with a Madoff-like subplot, he gives extra oomph to both. The financial portion isn’t about Hal – it’s about Jasmine’s blithe refusal to see anything but the fruits of Hal’s misdeeds as being relevant. Allen uses the flashbacks to underscore and illuminate Jasmine’s increasingly precarious mental state.

Yet Blanchett brings a specificity to the encroaching mental disconnect that Jasmine faces. Initially seen chattering incessantly at a seatmate on her flight to San Francisco, she’s often seen nattering on, whether to increasingly bored acquaintances or, as it sometimes turns out, to herself (while imagining she is actually in a conversation). It’s a spooky performance, one that never quite shifts into pure madness because the character is too canny to completely lose her grip (at least for most of the film).

The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, particularly Hawkins as the alternately ameliorative and feisty Ginger. Cannavale isn’t doing an obvious Stanley Kowalski here but he finds the perfect comic tone, as does Michael Stuhlbarg (as a dentist who hires Jasmine as a receptionist) and Peter Sarsgaard, as a diplomat who falls for the woman Jasmine seems to be (unaware of her past). Baldwin, as Hal, is silken, like the perfect con man ought to be.

“Blue Jasmine” isn’t just one of the best films of the summer; it’s one of the best of the year, a drama with enough laughs to underscore just how tragic its portrait really is. But while there is humor to be sure, you will never mistake this film for a comedy.

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