Friday, August 9, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Head In The Rich Clouds, Soul In The Poor Dumpster

Cate Blanchett as the title character in Woody Allen's comedy-drama "Blue Jasmine"
Sony Pictures Classics

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, August 9, 2013

"I'm an interior decorator," the haughty Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) says during Woody Allen's well-crafted, quietly devastating comedy-drama "Blue Jasmine".  This is one of many lies Jasmine will tell during 98 minutes of class-line excoriation by Mr. Allen, whose film feels much, much longer. 

Set and shot in America's two most expensive cities, New York and San Francisco, "Blue Jasmine" seeps into your bloodstream.  For some it will hit too close to home.  The cumulative emotional force of Ms. Blanchett's fine, unsettling performance punctuates an intense, uncomfortable experience.  Flavored with jazz, Mr. Allen's first love, "Blue Jasmine" is about many things, including the contempt and hostility between rich and poor, and the anguish men and women cause each other. 

Chiefly though, Mr. Allen's bitter comedy is more a tale of two sisters than two cities: Park Avenue socialite Jasmine and South Of Market working-class younger sister Ginger (a charismatic Sally Hawkins), adopted by separate mothers, are on an awkwardly level playing field in San Francisco.  Jasmine has fled there after turmoil in the marital Big Apple abode she and Hal (Alec Baldwin) share.  The sisters shakily coexist.

Jasmine swoops in from the high clouds in the film's opening image.  The image, a digital (read: artificial) plane -- one as fantasized and artificial as Jasmine herself -- is so unreal, forming the initial symbolism of a film unfolding entirely in Jasmine's head.  Poor Jasmine is a neurotic, pill-popping alcohol addict often accused of "looking the other way" when trouble arises.  The self-absorbed Jasmine scolds Ginger for her choice in "loser" working class stiffs like Augie (a very good Andrew Dice Clay) and Chili (a hilarious and intense Bobby Cannavale.)  Yet mega rich investor Hal (a Bernie Madoff stand-in) is responsible for changing the course of Ginger's life.

There's a blunt, unapologetic crudeness in the very trappings of "Blue Jasmine".  Its lack of establishing shots in its San Francisco locales aren't by accident.  Ginger's cramped South Van Ness Avenue apartment, "homely", as Jasmine patronizingly calls it, looks earthy, as does the city.  Devoid of a summer sun, San Francisco is wondrously and grittily photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe with alternating textures of grain, golden honey or rough rock akin to Alcatraz, not the gleaming jewel called the Golden Gate Bridge, seen at a far distance in one shot, hidden away, as if afraid to look upon or serenade some of this film's most pathetic creatures and hedonists. 

Mr. Allen sets the left coast city as the People's City and New York as its highfaluting airy counter-paradise, flipping the Allen script on Manhattan and giving San Francisco interiors the kind of warm Upper West Side gloss emblematic of some of Mr. Allen's notable works.  The contrast is a clever contrast of cultures, and a clash between harsh reality and honesty (New York) and entitlement, pretension and faux sophistication (San Francisco).  That sentence will offend some even though Mr. Allen stays away from the richest parts of San Francisco, save for one brief scene of humiliation in the Marina District, an area of the city that every San Franciscan who doesn't live there loathes. Mr. Allen draws the ironies well, and calculates the positions of his players on his chessboard so well.  It's a joy to see but it's joy without smiles.

That "joy" has been imputed to the director, who has had to get funding abroad to bring his last few films to the big screen, and "Blue Jasmine" is the first he's fully shot in the U.S. in several years.  ("Whatever Works", in 2009, was the last.)  For Mr. Allen as with a vast number of filmmakers, the costs of filming domestically are prohibitive. 

In "Blue Jasmine" Mr. Allen equivocates and editorializes about the working poor with stereotypes about the lack of restraint (toward sex, pizza and histrionics.)  Yet the director pulls similar levers with the rich (alcohol, materialism, serial cheating.)  Chili speaks of archaeologists, and Mr. Allen is that as he slowly, painfully digs beneath the surfaces of America's rich and poor to find that -- what do you know? -- they aren't so different as people at least, after all.  Rich at heart, Ginger and Chili are undoubtedly happier people than Jasmine and Hal.  The former couple can at least sleep comfortably and are content to argue about bread-and-butter things.  They are oblivious in a way, to the demands of finance, it is, until rich people's deeds make them self-conscious -- or do they make Jasmine self-conscious?

Meanwhile Jasmine's want is to absolve herself of guilt and cloak herself in aloofness with musings about guilt-free donations to The Central Park Conservatory.  All told, Jasmine is a picture of immense self-denial, and it's hard to discern if she's ever happy, even in the relatively few happy moments "Blue Jasmine" offers. 

Where "Six Degrees Of Separation" spotlighted the gulf between the New York City rich and the faux sophisticate who wanted to cozy up to them, Mr. Allen's film closes the gap but in reverse, with Jasmine believing her status elevates her above her poor sister Ginger.  The names of both characters are appropriate, but in reality just one name sparkles.  The reality of money, class and trust are a backbone of this resolute, adult and thought-provoking work.  If the title "Blue Jasmine" seems like a contradiction it truly is.

In a scene where Jasmine scolds Hal for an affair with a teenager I couldn't help imagining Mia Farrow shouting at Mr. Allen about his budding relationship with her adopted teen daughter Soon-Yi Previn in the early 1990s.  (Mr. Allen later married Ms. Previn.)  Earmarks of Mr. Allen's own life and neuroses are, of course, a staple of his work, and in full swing here. 

A bundle of contradictions, Jasmine resists the idea of working for a living but is employed at a dentist.  She cares about appearances yet compulsively babbles to herself in public and anyone within reasonable earshot.  Jasmine could be said to be mentally ill.  The shocking reveal of "Blue Jasmine" brings an agonizing conundrum that may account for her deeply-addled state of mind, a post-traumatic stress disorder turning Mr. Allen's film into psychodrama.

Replete with flashbacks, the overall tone of "Blue Jasmine" lends itself to the school of "Crimes And Misdemeanors" as tragicomedy and lesson in moral equilibrium and ethics.  Compared to recent Woody Allen films "Blue Jasmine" is muted in showiness and farce but razor-sharp and clinical in the resulting weight and effect of characters' decisions.  The film's final image is haunting, scary, decimating, alarming enough to stay etched in your mind after the jazz-fueled end credits cease.  Mr. Allen has certainly decided that his recent film honeymoons in Paris and Rome have come crashing to an end.

Also with: Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Alden Ehrenreich, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, Max Casella.

"Blue Jasmine" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for mature thematic material, language and sexual content.  The film's running time is one hour and 38 minutes. 

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