Blue Jasmine – More admired than enjoyed

(This review of “Blue Jasmine” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 12 September 2013 in a slightly different format.  The film opens in Australia today.)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg

There are no funny-looking wisecracking Jewish guys in Woody Allen’s latest film “Blue Jasmine”.  In fact, there are almost no Jewish characters at all, unless you count a bizarre dentist.

What “Blue Jasmine” has, instead, is a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role, one of the most captivating this year, equal to her best screen work.  It’s a certain Oscar nomination.

There are few moments of open hilarity in “Blue Jasmine”, and some of those are provided by “Dr Flicker”, the Jewish dentist who Jasmine goes to work for.  Flicker is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the Jewish actor (and star of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”).   Those with sharp ears may remember that this is not the first “Dr Flicker” in a Woody Allen film:  in the opening scenes of “Annie Hall”, the young Alvy Singer visits a cigarette-smoking “Dr Flicker” with his mother, complaining to the GP that he is depressed because “the world is expanding”.

Well, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) has the opposite problem.  Her world is collapsing.  In fact, “Blue Jasmine” is one long series of humiliations for this former Upper East Side socialite’s descent into poverty and mental illness.  Jasmine – also known as Jeanette – had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a fast-talking, Bernard Madoff-like financier.  They lived an uber-wealthy New York lifestyle of sophistication, fancy parties and weekends at their house in the Hamptons.

But Hal’s empire collapsed (how it did is part of the story, not to be revealed here), sending him to prison, and breaking up the family forever.  Left with nothing, Jasmine flies to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is dating Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and living in a marginal Mission District neighbourhood.  Using a complicated but effective series of flashbacks and dual story-telling, Allen counter-poses Jasmine’s struggles in San Francisco with her former privileged life in New York City.

Chili is an uneducated working class mechanic, just the sort of person Jasmine despises.  This sets up a “Streetcar Named Desire” sub-theme, neatly woven into the story – and of course Blanchett is well-known internationally for her role as Blanche du Bois in Williams’ classic play.  There’s a lot more family baggage:  at one time Ginger and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had invested the whole of a major lottery win with Hal, and lost it all.

For years, Allen has created memorable roles that attract a “who’s who” of acting talent.  “Blue Jasmine” continues Allen’s record of great film characters, especially for women, who have received twelve of the fifteen Oscar acting nominations for Allen’s films.

“Blue Jasmine” belongs to Cate Blanchett, although each performance is a delight.  In addition to Hawkins, Clay, Baldwin and Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard also appears as a diplomat and aspiring politician who falls in love with Jasmine, Louis C.K. as a boyfriend of Ginger’s, and Alden Ehrenreich as Jasmine’s estranged son.

Allen contrasts Ginger’s claustrophobic flat with beautiful bay-side homes in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  He has long been criticised for ignoring social and economic class:  surely the world is not all rich white people living near Central Park.  In “Blue Jasmine”, he introduces a number of working class characters and delves into class differences, although uncomfortably so.  I had a sneaking suspicion that the writer/director, like Jasmine, is “slumming” in this world, looking down on these characters and their modest homes.

Ultimately I admired “Blue Jasmine” much more than I liked it.  This film falls squarely into Woody Allen’s “serious” genre.  It’s not as bleak as his totally humour-less “Interiors”, but Allen gives us very little leavening of Jasmine’s descent and self-destructive failure in the way his “Crimes and Misdemeanours” alternated a very dark story with broad humour.  As a film about self-deception, human frailty and vulnerability, however, it succeeds.

Blue Jasmine Cate B GG Bridge

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