Friday, January 24, 2014

Blue Jasmine

I’ve had my fill of winter but I must admit that I was positively giddy driving home from work on Tuesday morning; I kinda felt like a kid playing hooky from class. I’m a big chicken when it comes to driving in the snow, so thanks to early forecasts I stayed a little late on Monday and was in the office by 7:00 am Tuesday so that I could get out of Dodge as soon as I saw the roads getting a little white. Getting home I felt a twinge of guilt (very slight) at having left so early but that passed as soon as I plopped down on my couch with blanket and Jasmin in hand to first read a book and later to catch this movie, which I missed last year.

Blue Jasmine is the latest film written and directed by the incomparable Woody Allen, starring Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard and love or hate him, old potty-mouth himself Andrew Dice Clay. Jasmine Francis (previously known as Jeannette) (Blanchett), a former Manhattan socialite now unemployed, homeless, and slightly delusional, is traveling to San Francisco to start her life anew after the prosecution, incarceration and subsequent suicide of her philandering husband, Hal (Baldwin), who’d been guilty of some shady business deals (think Madoff). Still recovering from a nervous breakdown that left her talking to herself in the middle of the New York City streets, Jasmine arrives flat broke (though she traveled first class with her Louis Vuitton luggage) at her adopted sister’s, Ginger (Hawkins), small and cramped apartment which she shares with her two boys from a prior marriage.

Struggling to settle in and accept not only her new home, but also Ginger’s current fiancée, Chili, whom she sees as yet another in a string of losers, Jasmine is constantly drawn back to the memories of her past life which we see as flashbacks. Each flashback offers a stark contrast between past and present; not just her previous riches (a house on Park Avenue, a beach house in the Hamptons, a stepson attending Harvard and extravagant cocktail parties with sketchy business deals taking place in the background) but these snippets of life also show us the dynamics of Jasmine’s previous relationships. We see her blind devotion to her husband; her obliviousness (by accident or by design) to his countless faults – financial and personal – including the fact that he was sleeping with anyone in a skirt; and also witness the contrast between Ginger’s generous welcome into her simple home compared to Jasmine’s pretentiousness and disdain when Ginger and her then husband Augie (Clay) come for a visit to New York – having them stay at a Marriott instead of her home and griping to Hal that now she’ll have to invite them to her birthday party.

Putting on airs which she really can no longer afford, Jasmine refuses Ginger’s job suggestions because they are supposedly too menial. Determined to reinvent herself she decides to take an online course to become an interior designer, though she can barely use a computer. School requires money which she doesn’t have so she finally concedes to work as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Near the breaking point thanks to school (a computer skills class to start off), work and her over-attentive and handsy boss, Jasmine copes by popping Xanax and guzzling martini’s at every turn. Yet somehow Jasmine perseveres but after the dentist makes a heavy pass at her, she quits. Commiserating with a fellow student at her computer class, she finally sees her chance to meet a different kind of people when she’s invited to attend a cocktail party, and excited and hopeful Jasmine convinces Ginger to go with her.

Reality exceeds her expectations when she meets Dwight, a diplomat and rich widower enthralled by her beauty and elegance. Jasmine takes reinvention one step too far though when she lies and not only claims to be an interior designer but in speaking of Hal, claims that he was a surgeon who died of a heart attack instead of a crook who committed suicide. Despite her deception, life takes an upswing as her relationship with Dwight blossoms and it seems like she can slowly begin to heal and let go of the past, but will it last or will the truth and the past come back to haunt her once again.

I’d wanted to see this movie for the longest time since I missed it during its theatrical release, so I was beyond thrilled when I saw it available via OnDemand, especially given the film’s critical acclaim and Blanchett’s numerous award show wins for this role. I wish I could say that I loved it or even that I liked it, but honestly I didn’t. I found it such a departure from the type of movies I normally associate with Allen which is namely funny. I’ve seen this film described as a dramedy (drama and comedy), but I fail to see where anyone could find any humor in this story or its tragic main character.

The plot offers what, given the Madoff debacle and other stories like it, seems like an honest portrayal (fair or not) of those like Madoff (the rich or elite; the 1%) and their laissez faire attitude towards business and their general greed. It also offers an obvious contrast between the haves and have nots and seemingly posits through its character depictions (again fair or not) an image of us working stiffs (like Ginger, a grocery-store clerk; or Chili, her mechanic boyfriend) as the good guys in the tale's socio-economic comparison. It paints a picture using only blacks and whites without any shades of gray, and it seems to offer Jasmine as a scapegoat or sacrificial lamb (pick your animal) on which we can direct our dislike and/or disdain.

Jasmine is pretentious and self-absorbed; both in the past and present and is depicted in such a harsh light that I question whether Allen intended her to be a tragic sympathetic figure or just an object of our scorn. As you watch her struggle through life, you’re hit by the fact that much of her suffering has been self-inflicted; whether in turning a blind eye to her husband’s dirty finances and romantic peccadillos, lying at the start of a brand new relationship, and on an emotional level her lack of human connection and openness with her sister – the only person whose stuck by her side through her life’s upheavals. At the film’s conclusion, you fear that her self-deception will forever limit her chances of peace and happiness.

Blanchett does a wonderful job in portraying a woman on the brink; conveying both her vulnerabilities and hopes through a simple frantic glance or an alluring smile. It speaks to the caliber of her acting that she takes an utterly unlikable human being, and manages to extract more than a fair measure of sympathy from us. Nonetheless, I will add that having seen Cate in other films I’m at a loss for all of the recognition she’s getting for this role. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great actress and her work merits some form of recognition, a nomination definitely, but a win at every award show? I’d say no.

Overall, Blue Jasmine was an interesting character study with a wonderful performance from a fine actress, but if you’re looking for classic Woody, then skip it.