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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.