Monday, September 23, 2013

The Cinema File #253: "Blue Jasmine" Review

Genius isn't a qualifier that can just be taken away from an artist once it is authentically applied, no matter the relative quality of their work throughout their lifetime. Dario Argento is a genius, for example, and I know this because I've seen many films he's directed where his brilliance is clearly on display. He also made Dracula 3D, a schlocky Stoker update that but for a few additional scenes of skin might have made for a decent soft core porno at best. The great Woody Allen has proven himself far too many times to count, enough to qualify as one of the few directors, or perhaps the only living director, worthy of the title comedic auteur. His remarkably prolific output has become much more hit and miss in the last few, well, decades, but when he's good, he's still really good, and Blue Jasmine easily counts as one of the best movies he's made in years.

Blue Jasmine is the story of the titular socialite forced to live with her lower middle class adoptive sister when her husband turns out to be a Bernie Madoff-style fraud, instantly obliterating her life of luxury. I need not dwell on the obvious parallel between Allen's psychotic sophisticate and Tennessee William's Blanche DuBois, as the comparison has been made in at least every review of the film I've read so far. I'd say it was a modern take on the classic character, but then I don't know if you can really call anything Woody writes nowadays particularly modern. The setting may technically be the present day, but as always the characters are often trapped in a timeless, dare I say stereotypical New York state of mind that's still just as home in his 70's heyday as it is today. Its a style that he's stuck with long enough that you have to just take it or leave it, and maybe I'm just so used to it that it doesn't bother me as much as I think it should.

Maybe I'm being obtuse in an attempt to refrain from too harshly criticizing a movie I ultimately enjoyed so much, but despite my fondness for Blue Jasmine and my genuine appreciation for the attention to detail regarding the titular character, I can't get away from the fact that she's really the only interesting member of what tries so hard to be an ensemble piece. As he matures as a director, whether you call it actual growth or not, Allen seems to be more at home with the complexities of the upper class elite, and conversely less interested in crafting realistic characters who aren't among that class. The movie is all about class divisions, but the only characters who feel real are the rich jerks, and the blue collar slobs who used to be Woody's kin are given short shrift, reduced to thin caricatures that stand in stark contrast to Jasmine and her ilk, who love them or (more likely) hate them, at least come across like actual people. But then I'm not a New Yorker inexplicably living in San Francisco. Maybe they really do all speak in those gooney accents and burst into slapstick tears at the drop of a hat like cartoon characters, but I doubt it.

All that being said, you should still definitely see this movie, but only for the presence of Cate Blanchette as Jasmine. I'm typically hesitant to make Oscar predictions, especially this early in the year when so many of the Oscar-bait prestige films have yet to debut, but this one is going to be pretty hard to top when it comes to the Best Actress category. I would only be revealing my ignorance to try and fully articulate all the various layers to her performance, as I'm sure I only breached the surface in one viewing. Despite my other problems with the film, this will definitely be one I plan on going back to just to see what I didn't pick up on the first time around. At the most superficial level, I can only marvel at how she is able to imbue so much dimension and ultimately engender so much sympathy with a character that in the hands of any other writer or any other actress would have been anything but. As Jasmine deteriorates, you're given every reason to delight in her misery, but never does it once cross your mind to do so.  She never does anything even remotely moral or decent, and yet you feel for her from minute one.

At the risk of unfairly psychoanalyzing the world's most famous ephebophiliac, I almost wonder if Allen was able to capture the character of Jasmine so completely and compel such a moving performance from his lead actress because unlike so many of his films that seem detached from his personal story, this one feels so much closer to home. They say that the trick to good writing is as simple as writing what you know, and buried within the Blanche DuBois of it all, I couldn't help seeing a few shades of Mia Farrow in Jasmine's increasingly frayed anti-heroine. Jasmine is a woman content to live the good life of denial and pretense until the rug is pulled out from under her by her husband, and this all comes to a head when she finds out that he's been cheating on her with a much, much younger woman (I think they may have even said 19, the same age Soon Ye Previn was when she and Allen first became romantically linked). I asked myself if this might be some sort of acknowledgement of wrong-doing on his part, but then the character goes through so much hell due mostly to her own shallowness and inability to see beyond herself that it is as much an attack as it is an apology, assuming I'm not just reading too much into it.

In any case. whether you want to say he's cursed, or just the guy who made Curse of the Jade Scorpion, there's no denying that Woody Allen's name on a film is no longer the mark of guaranteed quality that it once was. As a fan much more at home with his pre-Annie Hall wacky period characterized by Sleeper and What's Up Tiger Lily, I myself have mostly written him off as a lost cause save for the occasional bright spot here and there. Blue Jasmine is the first Woody Allen movie I've seen in a long time that wasn't just good relative to his recent work, but good enough that I wonder if he might just be poised for another renaissance akin to that bygone age where he could seemingly do no wrong. Of course we'll have to wait and see, but then just being able to say that Blue Jasmine has made me once again excited about the prospect of seeing what Woody Allen will come up with next is probably the best endorsement I can give to any movie.

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