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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen, over the past decade, has been one of the more "hit or miss" filmmakers that I can think of that is still held in fairly high acclaim. For every "Midnight in Paris" he puts out a "Whatever Works", for every "Vicki Christina Barcelona" there comes "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger". With "Blue Jasmine", Allen opted to take a slight detour from his typical "Over 40, New York existentialism" for something more rooted in classic theater, specifically Tennessee Williams. This film marks his biggest change of pace since "Matchpoint".

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arrives in San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), after the arrest and death of her husband and subsequent loss of their fortune. Living with Ginger marks a big social down-turn for Jasmine, who is used to large mansions and extravagant parties with her departed husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), not quaint two bedroom apartments. Things aren't helped by Ginger's boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale) who is ready to move in with Ginger and start their married life together but cannot do so because of Jasmine's arrival. Throughout "Blue Jasmine", Jasmine struggles to maintain a working class existence outwardly while also tacking her own inner demons and neuroses. Think of this as a modern day take on "A Streetcar Named Desire".

The Alpha and Omega of "Blue Jasmine" is Cate Blanchett. Her performance in the lead is stunning as a woman who is constantly clutching at straws and drowning in a world that she is unprepared for. She shields herself with a facade of aloofness and an upper crust attitude, but at the same time she is prone to panic attacks that leave her talking to people that aren't there, and re-imagining the more distressing situations of her past. Blanchett shifts between these two sides of Jasmine on a dime, and its a mesmerizing performance. As the "Stanley" type role from Williams' play is split amongst two actors here, the focus remains on Jasmine throughout and it makes "Blue Jasmine" a compelling character study. While I'm certain there will be many standout performances this year from actors, male and female, they'll have to go a long way to top the clinic Blanchett puts on display here.

What makes "Blue Jasmine" fairly remarkable for Allen's filmography is its location change. Typically, Allen has been identified as a "New York filmmaker" and the city itself has become almost a character in his collected work. Certainly, the Big Apple does make a few choice appearances, but the majority of the location shooting shifts over to the West Coast for the San Francisco setting that Allen has employed. The change of scenery provides a sense of renewed energy in the filmmaker as "Blue Jasmine" is some of his sharpest work this decade. The story carefully balances both forward momentum and expository material with panache, and one slight storytelling misstep in the final third aside, everything about Allen's script feels crisp and new. This is a pretty incredible feat given how well-worn these basic plot beats are for those familiar with classic cinema or theatre. There are a number of funny bits as well, even some that are uncomfortably so, which help add levity to what on the surface sounds like fairly serious business.

Blanchett aside, there are a number of standout players that acquit themselves well. Canivale is his usual excellent self, and he gets a scene in a grocery store that is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. Hawkins, a Brit like Blanchett, also adopts a Northeastern American accent, and you can barely tell that she isn't from the same part of Jersey that Cannivale hails from. Baldwin, in the aforementioned flashbacks, eeks out a deliciously smarmy veneer. If there's a shocker though, it may be the performance of Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's ex-husband Augie. Clay, who hasn't been in a major motion picture in years, is able to go toe-to-toe with both Hawkins and Blanchett in his sadly all too limited scenes.

While there are many positives that I can ascribe to "Blue Jasmine", as it's a thoroughly entertaining filmgoing experience and certainly amongst my favorites of the year so far, the main takeaway is Blanchett's riveting lead work. With this outright stunning performance, The Best Actress race is officially on for this year's Oscars. 

I give it an A

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