Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There are hundreds of modern-day variations on the Cinderella story, so why not the more modernist mythology of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and, crucially, Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of it? Writer-director Woody Allen has never made movies that were particularly driven by story-level originality, so it’s easy to detect what interests him in twisting Williams to his sensibility in this year’s Blue Jasmine. That is what he can use its basic tropes and personalities to say about a well-drawn, three-dimensional character whose life is in a state of despairing upheaval, about a time and a city, and about a longing that spirals downward — an escape into madness.

A deeply compassionate film, Jasmine is one of Allen’s least obviously “Woody Allen” movies to date; it won’t give any auteurists much trouble, as you can sense his themes and fixations running through it, but in the last decade Allen has periodically made a conscious attempt to write a script that suppresses his usual tendencies toward speechifying and sharp sardonics. Match Point was a major success, Cassandra’s Dream had its merit, and this may be the most seamless effort in this vein so far — a profoundly effective drama that never requires any indulgence for Allen’s usually egregious injections of his own persona. Beyond its all-encompassing air of dishonesty and hopelessness that are seldom directly articulated but run as a lethargic undercurrent, the most important side effect of this is that in direct contrast to his typical nostalgia or satire of bourgeois excess, it’s very much a portrait of our time — and one of the more insightful films abouttr the Great Recession so far. It’s intentionally tied very much to this period in American history, with its appropriation of the Madoff story in Jasmine’s late husband, Alec Baldwin ideal as the grinning face that ruins everyone. Having flown cross country to be near her adoptive sister, Jasmine is haunted by memories of affluence. The film’s about a woman, but it’s also about America. Jasmine is both.

“Temporarily” trapped in a modest home with Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine immediately sets about talking everyone’s ear off with pill-popping nerviness and is both castigated and desired by others in her new world. But she ties herself up in a web of increasing complexity as she finds herself consumed by the past and unable to cope with the solitude and frugality of the present. She’s especially tormented by the cruelly pallid realities of Ginger’s life with angry, potentially violent fiancé Stan– uh, “Chili” (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine’s emotional state is manifested in flashbacks — that’s where we meet Baldwin, and the wildly stunt-cast Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s good-hearted but vindictive ex-husband — but mostly in Blanchett’s face, needless to say. She is the film’s soul and voice. Her story is basically about two things: how denial is only a temporary byway to happiness, and how class is largely illusory. Jasmine is already falling apart long before she ends up mumbling to herself on park benches, and her sister’s brief respite from a succession of violent, boorish Stanleys only leaves her in pain. In the end, little changes because the film’s characters are so firmly within comfort zones that are too frightening to depart — even if Jasmine can only stay in hers by escaping into a Brazil-like fantasy world.

The movie’s pain is palpable and never mocked, but its achievement is in humanizing even its most unpleasant occupants. Chili is an asshole, but he makes someone happy; the good-natured, outwardly giving and caring men are hiding criminal activity and faithlessness; and Jasmine herself is a snob, but few of us won’t see at least a little of ourselves in her. It’s particularly fascinating to wonder how much Allen himself identifies with Jasmine. Always a misanthrope, does he roll his eyes at the simple longings and bed-hoppings of Ginger and her lovers (which come to include a dorky audio engineer played by an equally stunt-cast Louis C.K.), her tiny apartment and tasteless furniture? That seems doubtful, but he banks on the idea that a fair proportion of the film audience will respect her as human even when we’re bristling at much of the evil shit she says. On account of both Allen and Blanchett’s efforts, this is an impressively well-drawn portrait even at its most alienating.

Like the underrated You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, this is a story about pain and loss almost beyond imagining — but this time with no black cynical coating, just a knowing, lightly witty tragedy with a wisp of dreamlike despair. The scenes and performances that constitute this are harder to shake than anything Allen has put together in some time. And as usual, his blocking of scenes and lengthy takes are marvelous to watch, this time with unusual and highly resourceful use of the 2.35 frame. (It’s only his third film in Scope.) His camerawork has become nearly invisible here, and the calm professionalism of his last several films seems to have reached its zenith. It’s unlikely we ever thought we’d see Allen, of all people, capturing the mundane reality of domestic chaos, of a cell phone you can’t hear ringing because the premarital fight in progress is too damn loud.

All that said, Blanchett received much of the praise associated with Blue Jasmine, and it was well-deserved. She fully sells herself as an outcast in San Francisco and a society woman in New York, with the transition entirely believable each and every time it’s made (dozens; the film leaps around chronologically with abandon). By her showy comic movement, ranting about “Blue Moon” to a couple of preteens, and her stirringly sad final scene, she has turned this into a heartfelt and scary career peak. But this is also one of the finest supporting casts Allen has ever put together. Even those who’ve hated Clay their whole lives will almost certainly enjoy him here. Cannavale, Hawkins and Baldwin ease with perfection into their characters, and Peter Sarsgaard, so often typecast as a level-headed nice guy, is acid fun as alternately desirable and laughably hollow diplomat Dwight, who blows Jasmine’s future to smithereens when he uncovers the ample secrets of her unstated past.

It’s strange to realize how actually enjoyable this film about a person’s mental breakdown is, but this is because Allen’s worldview is simply disinterested in allowing the darkness to overtake, and in some fashion it makes the film more troubling because it demonstrates that Jasmine’s problems are only a tiny broken fragment of a much larger world that neither notices nor forgives. The film, on the other hand, is deeply forgiving — but critical — of Jasmine, a tricky balance. Some feel differently. Blue Jasmine has been decried as lazy and mean-spirited in some quarters, where it’s believed that the film is simply setting up a specific character with the intention of destroying her, sort of a Young Adult for the Marketplace set. It seems to me that you take from Jasmine what you bring to the film; if you’re determined to hate her, you will, but the film makes no judgment and displays her as a humane and flawed creation who seems achingly real, even when she’s knee-jerk skeeved out when surrounded by those she obviously perceives (at a glance, anyway) as lowlives. I don’t know where people are seeing what horrible things they’re seeing in this, but then, I seldom know what Woody Allen movie other people are watching.

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