Sunday 6 October 2013

Driftwood: "Blue Jasmine"

Blue Jasmine, this year's Woody Allen Comeback Special, is a Princess-and-the-Pauper variant in which one actress gets to play both roles simultaneously and thereby chew up 99% of the movie, a feat for which she is apparently to be rewarded with all the gold and silver the upcoming award season has to offer. The princess in question is Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), formerly Jeannette, and very evidently a woman with a fragile sense of self. Jasmine was living in gilded luxury in uptown Manhattan until the Ponzi scheme set up by her financial advisor Hal (Alec Baldwin) came crashing down around her. As we join the film, Jasmine is going West, if not to regain her lost fortune, then perhaps to flee her creditors; upon landing, she installs herself in the modest San Francisco home of her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a single mom who just happens to be among those Hal and his pals ripped off.

The rash of four- and five-star reviews Blue Jasmine has so far prompted offer a vast collective sigh of relief that Allen - still a critics' darling, even after Hollywood Ending and Cassandra's Dream - has returned to surer ground after his spell in European exile, and it's true the director's feel for toney Upper East Side living here far outclasses, say, Match Point's pie-eyed vision of London's moneyed elite. This is the needling Allen of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters returning to prominence: after the comforting fantasias of Midnight in Paris, the flashbacks excavating Jasmine's past serve to bring us closer to the rot, hurt and betrayal.

Perhaps, too, there is relief at the fact that, when he turns his mind to it, Allen is still capable of writing a sustained character study. Jasmine is "on", as it were, from the very first scene (chewing the ear off a nice old lady on a plane) to the film's closing moments, giving Blanchett ample time to flaunt her theatrical virtuosity. Yet her triumph comes at the expense of almost everybody else around her. With the honorable exception of Andrew Dice Clay (the faded stand-up whose weariness and desperation fits his role as Ginger's duped and vengeful ex), Woody's San Francisco folk are unforgivably basic, salt-of-the-earth blue-collar caricatures, drawn from more or less the same condescending neighborhood as Mighty Aphrodite's dumb lugs and hookers, who convince as types more than they do as actual people.

Perhaps it's foolish to expect fine-honed naturalism from a director who's long expected nothing more from his actors than to show up and read his lines out, but Allen apparently has next to no idea how to shoot contemporary working-class life. Ginger's spacious walk-up is like a network sitcom production designer's idea of Where Poor People Might Live, while Javier Aguirresarobe's photography lends even San Francisco's supposedly dingier districts the same hazy, orangey glow he previously gave to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. You want to see a filmmaker romanticising penury? Well, here you go.

The narrowness of the supporting characterisation cuts across the classes: set Blue Jasmine against the filigreed depiction of America's social extremes in either Arbitrage or Warrior, and you surely see that everybody's praising Blanchett for making off with a movie only marginally less tissue-thin in its concerns than You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. The film certainly looks of this particular moment, granted, yet as several recent interviews attest, Allen has no real interest in the widening gap between rich and poor: to him, this great divide is just a peg upon which to hang this year's movie script, and in applauding Blue Jasmine, it strikes me that we're applauding a director in decline for being hopelessly out of touch with reality. 

The Woodyphiles have clung to that creaky old theatrical driftwood A Streetcar Named Desire as a way of explaining why everyone in a film notionally set in present-day America should be acting as though they were on stage in the Eisenhower era, yet even Jasmine's obvious resemblance to Blanche DuBois can't excuse Bobby Cannavale's cartoonishly second-rate Kowalski impersonation, or the way the film tails off into a babbling nothing the moment you emerge from the Odeon to find yourself once more confronted by the rather more vivid surrounds of Poundland and Booze Busters. You have to add Tennessee Williams to Blue Jasmine to make it seem less intrinsically flimsy or phoney - and I'd argue there's a gulf of difference between a performance that deserved a Tony in 1958 and one that merits the Oscar in 2013, between full creative recuperation and feebly piggybacking an overrated master.

Blue Jasmine is in cinemas nationwide.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Mike. It's one of those rare movies from Woody where he lets his ensemble do the talking for his script, and it's a decision that pays off in the long run. Especially coming from Blanchett, who I think runs a pretty good chance at getting nominated for an Oscar, as she deserves it, once again.