Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine

The Harder They Fall                        
by Mark Dispenza

Woody Allen's latest film is short on laughs and long on social commentary. A departure from Allen's usual shtick, Blue Jasmine is a well-constructed character study of a socialite's fall from grace.  

I haven't heard it yet, but I won't be surprised if Cate Blanchett's performance as Jasmine generates an Academy Award nomination.  Perhaps this late summer release date was targeted to bolster her chances.  It it comes to pass, it will be an honor she richly deserves.

Jasmine is a Hamptons housewife-type whose life has been shattered by the arrest, conviction and suicide of her once super-wealthy husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin).  The problem was that Hal's wealth was built upon a giant ponzi scheme that netted many victims over the years he kept it afloat with creative financial and legal maneuverings.

Among the victims were Jasmine's sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).  Ginger  did not share her sister's financial good fortune in marriage.  She barely gets by as a checker in a neighborhood grocery store.  Augie is a small contractor who came into good luck after he acquired a winning lottery ticket.  Unfortunately Jasmine and Ginger talked him into investing the money with Hal, rather than pursuing his dream of starting his own business.  

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay

After years of avoiding contact with her working class sister, Jasmine, now financially destitute and recently released from a psychiatric hospital, is forced to seek her assistance to survive.  But Jasmine can't accept her new poverty, and she spends much of her energy seeking out creative ways to restore her life of privilege, whether through her own entrepreneurial efforts or by marrying back into it.

As the story unfolds both in real-time and in flashback, it becomes apparent that Jasmine is an expert at looking the other way.  Although she professes to be yet another victim of her husband's deception, she is not the air-headed socialite she affects.  It was her choice to turn a blind eye as evidence mounted of Hal's financial machinations and his serial betrayal of their marriage.  

Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin

Intentional or not, Allen has created a powerful parable of how the blind pursuit of wealth for its own sake corrupts the soul and destroys all it touches.  Although in many ways, Allen's script comes across as a European intellectual's smug parable about the demise of American privilege in the world, and good riddance to its exploitative origins and corrupting influence, it would be a mistake to dismiss the film so readily.

This is easily Allen's smartest and most serious work to-date.  Whether or not you agree with the film's pessimistic tone, it is an insightful view into the nature of the wealth-obsessed.  Despite Hal and Jasmine's generous support of charities, nothing they do will make up for the evil upon which they built their ultimately fragile opulence.

Jasmine is toxic to everyone she comes in contact with.  Despite Ginger's humble life she is happy and fulfilled.  That changes every time Jasmine attempts to remake her in her own image.  The scorecard for Jasmine's interference is a failed marriage, a lost nest egg and the disruption of Ginger's new relationship with grease monkey, Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale in one of the film's most entertaining performances.

Self-deception is Jasmine's greatest forte.  The illusions upon which she based her life are fracturing, and so is Jasmine's mind.  She dulls the pain with alcohol, but there will never be enough booze or money to repair what is broken inside of her.  

Cate Blanchett

Blanchett's performance is a key component of what makes the film work.  Although it's easy to loathe her superficial values and condescending dismissal of working class people, Blanchett somehow manages to convey the psychological underpinnings of fear and vulnerability that drive Jasmine.  In spite of everything she's done, it's hard not to feel sorry for her and hope that somehow she gets her values straight and her life back in order.

Allen doesn't hold much hope for that.  


  1. Mark, excellent review of a movie I look forward to seeing. I love Bobby Cannevale and the magical Kate never ceases to amaze. I also think that these moral dilemmas/large life lessons are where Woody really shines and some of my favorite movies of his - Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and her Sisters - contain this kind of depth or darkness.

  2. An alternative view:

    "Blue Jasmine" is Woody Allen's attempt to redo Tennessee Williams's "Streetcar Named Desire" without crediting Williams and without Tennessee's talent or sensitivity.

    Like his own performances and previous films, Allen is as subtle as a sledgehammer. My wife and I were correctly guessing throughout this film the next imitation of Williams's plot and character devices. But whereas in "Streetcar," Stanley is aware of Blanche's airs and is both attracted to and threatened by them, Allen's equivalent character just doesn't notice.

    Vivien Leigh's attempts to create a civil and gracious world in which she can hide and be protected are both irritating and heartbreaking; Blanchett is an immensely gifted but tense, constantly straining actress. A really gifted director would lead her to physically and emotionally relax, thereby releasing in her work layers of meaning that we will see but don't have to be pushed like signposts for us to read.

    My guess is that Allen saw Blanchett do "Streetcar" and, being without any substantial inspiration of his own, decided to do a film with her of what he had seen, but transposing characters without any particular insight.

    On the "Charlie Rose" TV show, Blanchett says she thought the script she read was a comedy, and that only in the 10th day of filming did Allen say to her, "You know, this is a serious film." She said to Charlie, "Why didn't he tell me the first day?"

    This story does not surprise me.

    William Smithers

  3. It's a brilliant film. Cate Blanchett is a revelation. Best movie of the year so far, hands down.