Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In BLUE JASMINE, Allen and Blanchett channel Blanche DuBois via Mrs. Madoff

Woody Allen just keeps rolling 'em out. And while he doesn't really repeat himself (I don't think any alert viewer would mistake one of his films for another), it may be that he cranks these out a little too quickly, relying as ever on happenstance and coincidence to make the connections that real life can seldom provide. This works best in the comedy and rom-com genres, where we expect -- hell, we want -- our happy endings. When too-easy coincidence occurs in drama (whether it tilts toward the happy or unhappy makes little difference), the whole thing begins to look too much like a set-up.

So it is with BLUE JASMINE, which is saved, as Allen's films often are, by first-class casting and acting. As a writer, the guy seems to grow sloppier, while directing-wise he's even less fussy than in the old days and so more on-the-mark. Notice how he handles the repeated back-and-forth of time frames to present and past. These are sharp, clear and focused so that we quickly know where we are and whether it's now or then. It's as though he's telling us, "Look I don't have time to erect all the signposts; just follow along!" And we do.

What we follow here is the tale of an entitled, sleazy and basically nasty woman named "Jasmine" (she's changed to that name from something more prosaic), played by Cate Blanchett, above, whose marriage and fancy, moneyed life have recently collapsed. She's left New York City and the Hamptons for the much simpler and more affordable(!) world of San Francisco. This location shows how out-of-touch Mr Allen is with where working people can afford to live, but I guess the midwest would not have been as much fun for him to film. San Francisco is the home of her lower-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, below, left, with Andrew Dice Clay, who plays -- and very well -- her former husband).

Fully one-third to one-half of the film is set in the past, so we really get to see who Jasmine was, as well as who she remains -- even though her circumstances have turned upside down. Allen is crafting here a morality tale for our time -- the financial crisis and the economic downturn -- in which the great wealth of Jasmine's husband (Alec Baldwin, below, center, and fine, as usual) was evidently derived from fakery (think Bernie Madoff).

Yet the filmmaker's grasp of how the hoi polloi live is awfully limited. Even the manner in which Jasmine earns her living as a "worker" -- a short spell with an odd dentist (the amusing Michael Stuhlbarg) and then, nothing -- indicates that Allen has little understanding of or interest in how most of us pay our bills.

Ditto his creation of "working men" like Ginger's new boyfriend (the wonderful Bobby Cannavale, above, left) and his best friend (Max Casella, above, right) who remain walking, talking clichés. That Cannavale and Casella walk and talk damn well, goes some distance toward camouflaging this. But there are times when, watching Cannavale act, you think, God, he must have been dying for a bit of decent dialog! But none of the characters here, save Jasmine, are given any depth by their author.

Around the time Peter Sarsgaard (above) appears (then rather quickly disappears), the coincidences really hit home. Through it all, Ms Blanchett delivers a spot-on performance, with every moment real (and often grating). Cate's too smart an actress to try to sugar-coat her character, who is, let's face it, a horror who just keep growing more horrible. That the actress has played -- and quite well, I am told -- Blanche DuBois could only have helped her performance -- which is some kind of wonderfully strange concoction of Blanche and a character somewhat like Mr. Madoff's wife (but younger), who could not have helped but know what her husband was up to on some level but ignored it all to bask in the wealth. At this point in our film year, Blanchett would seem a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

Blue Jasmine is a lot of fun, though it is not particularly funny, as in ha-ha. (That's Louis C.K. with Ms Hawkins, above.) It is light on its feet, as shallow movies with weighty themes sometimes are. I think Allen may not have intentionally gone after a character study, but that's what, thanks mostly to Blanchett, he has achieved. It's a good one, too -- even memorable -- though everything else here pales beside it.

The movie, from Sony Pictures Classics and running 98 minutes, opens this Friday, July 26, in New York City (at the Angelika Film Center, City Cinemas 123, Lincoln Plaza Cinema), in Brooklyn (at the BAM Harvey Theater) and in Los Angeles (at The Landmark and perhaps elsewhere). From there, a national rollout will follows in cities across the U.S.

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