Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013)


A certain amount of delusion can be a perfectly good coping mechanism for the difficulties of life – but what if that delusion completely takes over your view of reality?  Moreover, what if it starts to impact on other people, especially your family? It is these sorts of questions that lie at the heart of Blue Jasmine, a surprising, funny and, at times, brutal character study, written and directed by Woody Allen.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a former Manhattan socialite whose world collapses around her when her millionaire businessman husband is jailed for a massive Bernie Madoff style programme of fraud, taking all of her money, possessions and identity down with him. Forced to move to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger, Jasmine tries to put her life back together piece by piece, while swilling back vodka and pills. Will she find the right man to help her get things back on track - or is it time to learn how to count on herself to survive?

There are some familiar Woody Allen themes in Blue Jasmine, such as adultery and madness, but also some unexpected elements. The first thing that I found surprising about Blue Jasmine is the ferocious energy, a welcome change of pace after the rather laid back, rambling films Allen has been making recently, an energy that mostly flows from the performance of Cate Blanchett.

There is also a change of tone from recent work, giving the second surprise, namely, what a harsh film this is. The harshness comes from the situations in which Jasmine finds herself, and granted, some are of her own making, but others are a result of bad luck, a wise choice on Allen’s part, that helps engender some sympathy with a character that could otherwise become unbearable.  He also sensibly balances the intensity of the drama with flashes of humour, and not from the traditional Woody Allen one liner (don’t get me wrong, he still writes good ones), but more through the juxtaposition of Jasmine and her deluded world view, with that of those around her, or with the reality of a situation.

The third, equally welcome surprise is the characterisation. Too often of late, characters in Woody Allen films seem two dimensional, unreal, and uninspired people, who simply exist to spout dialogue. This is less of a hindrance in a comedy film if the jokes and situations are good enough to pick up the slack, which is why Midnight in Paris worked as well as it did. However, much as I liked Midnight in Paris, the characters were the US equivalents of the sort of god-awful bores you expect from a Richard Curtis script. For a serious, believable drama though, you need a believable lead character, especially if the film revolves around this character, and Allen has delivered it in Jasmine.

The aforementioned ferocious energy in the film largely originates in Cate Blanchett's performance. She throws herself into the role and, with a refreshing lack of vanity for a Hollywood star, is not afraid to show herself in an unflattering light physically, with a haggard looking face and sweat stains under her arms.

As usual, Allen assembles a strong and varied supporting cast; Alec Baldwin delivers another memorable turn as Hal, Jasmine’s greedy slime ball husband, although admittedly, this kind of role is nothing new to him. More surprising is a brief but memorable appearance from Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband, so far removed from his brash obnoxious stand up persona. Clay brings a convincing humbleness to a character understandably aggrieved as he has to watch his one chance as financial independence gets flushed down the toilet, (along with, shortly afterwards, his marriage), thanks to Hal and his fraudulent activities.

For a change, there is no "Woody Allen" character, in other words, an actor doing, to a greater or lesser extent, a Woody Allen impression, something that usually occurs in a film of his in which he is not appearing. Sometimes this can be the lead, such as Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, or a supporting character such as Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda. Louis CK, who has a brief role as a slightly nerdy man who has an affair with Ginger, comes close, but lacks the neurotic ticks and speech patterns.

In the final few minutes, we get an unexpected twist, one that adds a further layer of complication to Jasmine’s situation, but one perfectly in keeping with her immaturity and self-destructiveness. Avoiding a happy ending, which would not have rung true, Allen wisely lets the film conclude in a downbeat manner, and shows that when he cares, and when the story and characters are engaging enough, he can still be a distinctive, funny and interesting filmmaker.