Skip to main content

She couldn’t stop babbling about her life.

Blue Jasmine
(2013)

If there’s one are where Woody Allen is generally reliable, even when the quality of his movies dips, its eliciting great performances from his ready and willing actors. That’s never been truer than with Blue Jasmine, a film in which the lead performance far eclipses the quality of the screenplay. Cate Blanchett wholly deserves her Oscar, and raises the surrounding picture several levels as a result.


A fair amount of discussion has been generated by the possible inspirations for this story of a New York socialite (Jeanette/Jasmine; Blanchett) who moves to San Francisco to live with her struggling blue collar sister Ginger after the bottom falls out of her marriage and financial affairs. How much is this Allen taking his cues from A Streetcar Named Desire (Jasmine as Blanche and Ginger as Stella)? I’m not familiar enough with the play to pass judgement, although there are certainly superficial similarities. And how much of Jasmine (the character) is Woody channelling his malign view of Mia Farrow into fiction; a fragile, unstable, self-deluding egoist, so shrill and unpleasant only a saint wouldn’t be able to tolerate her obnoxious superiority. I hadn’t aware of the widespread rallying behind this view beforehand, but it was one of the first things that occurred to me about her.


We only see hubby Hal (Alec Baldwin) in flashbacks to their luxury lifestyle. He was a rich financier, but his fraudulent activities led to his arrest, imprisonment and suicide. Dragged down with him were the one-time only savings, a lottery win, of Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her then husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). As a result Ginger’s friends and family aren’t overly keen on Jasmine, considering her at best to have turned a blind eye to Hal’s misdeeds, but Ginger has sympathy for her as a victim of his philandering. The greatest immediate impact on Jasmine is a mental collapse. We first see her talking to herself by way of a reluctant passenger on a plane journey, and we can only sympathise with the elderly woman when she makes a break for it at the luggage reclamation point.


Jasmine’s undisguised disdain for the poverty of her new surroundings and the insufferable snobbery she shows to those she considers lower on the pecking order than her, is underlined by her jaundiced attitude to Ginger and her fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale, fortunately less apoplectic than in Boardwalk Empire, but still a tinderbox). She makes no effort to fit in or empathise. Why should she? She never had to before. So Jasmine carries her world of delusion into this new one, rehearsing past glories and events (in which we see her wilful blindness towards her husband’s behaviour and the slipping veil that she was completely ignorant of what he was up to in business affairs; it suited her to ignore it), fancifully holding out the idea that she can become an interior designer, and even worse spiralling into a doomed relationship with a rich widower (Peter Sarsgaard); one propped up on a succession of lies she just cant help from telling. Throughout this she is constantly popping pills, an abject, semi-functioning alcoholic. Her life is a bipolar car crash.


Little on the page is likely to endear you to Jasmine. This is a merciless character assassination from Allen, even if it is entirely unrelated to Farrow. The very occasional, brief glimmer maybe; a less caustic scene in which, progressively more trolleyed, she imparts some wisdom to her sister’s sons (which boils down to the empty life advice “Tip big, boys”). But even then, the humanity is all Blanchett’s,. That we end up feeling vaguely sorry for her, and the hopeless mess she has made of hers and others’ lives (including that of her stepson) makes her Oscar warranted thrice over.


There's something rather mean-spirited about this picture in general. Evident are the same kind of patronising broad-strokes to Allen’s depiction of rich and poor that made an earlier venture into the realm of class boundaries such a disaster (perhaps the director’s only unintentional comedy, the plaudits it received still mystify me). Allen also takes in the financial crisis, but he may as well not have bothered; neither characters nor events feel remotely contemporary, as if they have alighted from a distant shore and time (he also seems to think everyone else in the world is as computer illiterate as he is). The poor are salt of the earth folk who earn an honest crust. Sure, they have foibles but don’t they got heart! Baldwin’s Hal, meanwhile, may as well have stepped in from his Glengarry Glen Ross cameo (in fairness, one could only really see him as an Allen substitute when he announces he is running off with a teenager). There’s no shading there, but there’s no shading anywhere.


Where one can’t hear Allen’s writing it’s because the actors somehow make the characters their own. Hawkins is very good, but Ginger is so over-familiar (the apologist sister from Hannah and Her…, just less well-to-do). Clay and Cannavale breathe life into their strutting caricatures, and Louis C.K. is winning as Ginger’s sound system salesmen suitor. The most Allen-esque character is probably Michael Stuhlbarg’s predatory dentist (“Have you ever got high on nitrous oxide?”) but he’s such a fine actor he really deserves an Allen lead.


So Allen the writer didn’t deserve his Best Screenplay Oscar nomination, but don’t forget that, besides the well-earned win for the delightful Midnight in Paris, he also got a nod for the execrable Match Point. I’ve missed a number of Allen’s pictures since the millennium turned (it would once have been unthinkable, but I suspect few of them are undiscovered gems in waiting), but this comes across as a conscious attempt to rekindle some of the existential angst of his post-Bergman ‘80s phase (remember the crumbling façade of Charlotte Rampling in the excellent Stardust Memories?)


Perhaps being back on familiar turf brings it home, but it’s more evident than ever that Allen’s got little left to say, apart from venting some unbridled bitterness. That he’s knocking 80 and still making interesting movies, however flawed, is remarkable in itself, however. He pulls off some nice touches; there’s an effective final act reveal, and an appropriate symmetry to the construction as a whole. But mainly, he’s very fortunate to have all these exemplars of acting finery just waiting for his call (although, a few may not be as giddy for it in the light of recently re-heated accusations). And in a case like this, that call is everything. Blue Jasmine is all on Blanchett. Her performance is stunning; repellent, vainglorious and tragic.


***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
(SPOILERS) You see? Sometimes Oscar can get it right. Not that the backlash post-announcement would have you crediting any such. No, Saving Private Ryan had the rug unscrupulously pulled from under it by Harvey Weinstein essentially buying Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture through a lavish promotional campaign. So unfair! It is, of course, nothing of the sort. If the rest of Private Ryan were of the same quality as its opening sequence, the Spielberg camp might have had a reasonable beef, but Shakespeare in Love was simply in another league, quality wise, first and foremost thanks to a screenplay that sang like no other in recent memory. And secondly thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, so good and pure, before she showered us with goop.

The Statue of Liberty is kaput.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
(SPOILERS) William Goldman said of Saving Private Ryan, referencing the film’s titular objective in Which Lie Did I Tell? that it “becomes, once he is found, a disgrace”. “Hollywood horseshit” he emphasised, lest you were in doubt as to his feelings. While I had my misgivings about the picture on first viewing, I was mostly, as many were, impacted by its visceral prowess (which is really what it is, brandishing it like only a director who’s just seen Starship Troopers but took away none of its intent could). So I thought, yeah Goldman’s onto something here, if possibly slightly exaggerating for effect. But no, he’s actually spot-on. If Saving Private Ryan had been a twenty-minute short, it would rightly muster all due praise for its war-porn aesthetic, but unfortunately there’s a phoney, sentimental, hokey tale attached to that opening, replete with clichéd characters, horribly earnest, honorific music and “exciting!” action to engage your interest. There are…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

I’m the spoiled toff who lives in the manor.

Robin Hood (2018)
(SPOILERS) Good grief. I took the disdain that greeted Otto Bathurst’s big screen debut with a pinch of salt, on the basis that Guy Ritchie’s similarly-inclined lads-in-duds retelling of King Arthur was also lambasted, and that one turned out to be pretty good fun for the most part. But a passing resemblance is as close as these two would-be franchises get (that, and both singularly failed to start their respective franchises). Robin Hood could, but it definitely didn’t.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Have you always lived here, Mother?

I Am Mother (2019)
(SPOILERS) This Netflix science-fiction offering arrived with very solid reviews, always a surprise for a Netflix movie, even one they picked up at Sundance. For about two-thirds of the running time, I Am Mother seems to justify the (modest) raves. It boasts assured direction from Grant Sputore (making his feature debut), polished production values and strong performances from a very small cast (basically Hilary Swank and Clare Rugaard, with Luke Hawker in a Weta robot body suit and Rose Byrne providing the voice). It operates intriguing turns of plot and switches in sympathies. Ultimately, however, I Am Mother heads towards a faintly underwhelming and unremarkable, standard-issue conclusion.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…