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Josh Reviews Blue Jasmine

It was over thirty years ago when Woody Allen himself made reference to fans who preferred his “earlier, funnier movies” (in 1980’s Stardust Memories, to be exact, and holy cow I can’t believe how long ago that movie came out).  There are a great many people out there, including myself, who remain fans of Woody Allen but who, decades later, continue to feel the same way.  Take the Money and Run, Play it Again Sam (which I should mention was not directed by Mr. Allen), Sleeper, and of course the peerless Bananas — these are spectacular films.  Bananas just gets funnier and funnier for me, every single time I watch it.  Part of me wishes Woody Allen would occasionally make another movie like those.  And yet, my very favorite Woody Allen films came after Mr. Allen began incorporating more dramatic elements into his films.  Annie Hall (1977) still stands for me as my very favorite Woody Allen film, and it is certainly one of my top ten favorite movies of all time.  But beyond just Annie Hall, so many of my favorite Woody Allen films came after he moved away from just making silly farces — Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), I could go on.

So it’s not quite as simple, for me, as saying that I simply prefer Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier movies.”  And yet it’s clear to me that for the past two decades, I have not connected nearly as strongly to Mr. Allen’s new films as I used to.  Even the best-reviewed of Mr. Allen’s recent films — including, most notably, Match Point (2005) and Midnight in Paris (2011) — have left me cold.

So I am delighted to say that while I do still prefer his “earlier, funnier movies,” I found Blue Jasmine to be the best Woody Allen film in nearly twenty years.

Although there are a couple of funny moments, don’t go into Blue Jasmine expecting comedy.  This is a dramatic film, through and through.  But whereas I have found some of Mr. Allen’s previous straight-dramatic work to be dull and joyless (if I never have to watch Interiors again for the rest of my life, it will be too soon), I was thoroughly captivated by Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett is mesmerizing as the titular Jasmine, a wealthy woman on the verge of a complete mental collapse.  Jasmine was a wealthy, high-society socialite, but she lost everything when her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was revealed as a Bernie Madoff-type crook and arrested.  Jasmine is now forced to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and she has tremendous trouble integrating into Ginger’s blue collar lifestyle.  There is no big, dramatic plot to Blue Jasmine.  Instead, the film is a tightly-focused character study on Jasmine.  The audience is pushed and pulled between sympathy for and horror at Jasmine, and I was impressed by how deftly the film was able to draw us into the inner life of this, in my opinion, fairly rotten woman.  Ms. Blanchett is in pretty much every single scene of the film, and she is absolutely dynamite.  It is a powerhouse of a performance, and she dives head-first into this character, pulling the audience along with her.  You literally can’t look away.

The entire cast is extraordinary.  Woody Allen’s films always have a great cast, but lately I have often found myself thinking that great actors have been wasted in his films, not given much of a character to embody.  But here, I felt that the whole cast truly had a lot of room to play, and were able to breathe life into their characters.  I didn’t just feel like they were famous people reading Woody Allen lines.

Quite a lot has been written about people’s amazement at the performance turned in by profane stand-up comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, and allow me to join the chorus.  He is spectacular in the role, absolutely note-perfect.  His final monologue, late in the film, is devastating.  I can’t believe how good “Dice” is in the role.  It’s a perfect fusing of performer and character.  My hat is off to Mr. Allen or whoever had the idea to cast him.

Cate Blanchett will get all the accolades (and deservedly so), but one shouldn’t overlook just how great Sally Hawkins is as her sister Ginger.  Ms. Hawkins is able to go toe-to-toe with Ms. Blanchett in scene after scene.  She’s terrific, and her performance combined with a layered script allow one to bring many different interpretations to the character.  My wife and I spent a while debating, after the film, whether or not Jasmine’s assessment of Ginger — that her low self-esteem lead her to dating guys who were clearly beneath her — was correct.  I love that the film gives the audience a lot of different ways to read Ginger.

I was equally pleased by Bobby Cannavale as Chili, Ginger’s current boyfriend who seems, in many ways, like a younger version of Augie.  (Ginger clearly has a type!)  There are some easy jokes to be had from the collision of the prim, proper, uptight Jasmine and the uncouth, undershirt-wearing, cheap beer-drinking Chili (and indeed the film allows us to enjoy those jokes), but Mr. Cannavale brings a lot more to the character, turning what could easily have been a flat collection of low-brow stereotypes into a human being who, whether one feels he is right for Ginger or not (my wife and I were split on that account), one certainly cares for and invests in.

Louis C.K. is fun in a small role, as is Peter Sarsgaard who is, like the rest of this ensemble, perfectly cast as an upper-crust young man whose eye Jasmine catches in the second half of the film.  Speaking of perfectly cast, Alec Baldwin absolutely nails the role of the handsome, smooth operator Hal, whose handsome facade hides a lier and a schemer underneath.

Blue Jasmine has a clever structure, as the film continually shifts from Jasmine’s current predicament back to her life in luxury, married to Hal.  Not only does this back-and-forth structure give the film a fun narrative energy, but through the juxtaposition of past and present one gains further insight into Jasmine’s character and her life.  It’s very nicely done.

One of the best things I can say about Blue Jasmine is that it doesn’t feel at all to me like a Woody Allen film.  I realize that feels like an attack on Mr. Allen, which isn’t what all what I mean.  I’m a huge fan of his work, so obviously I have nothing against a “Woody Allen film.”  What I mean is that many of his recent movies have felt, to me, like pale shadows of his earlier work.  One of the thing that bugged me about Match Point, for example, was that no matter how gaga most people were for the film, I found that it reeked painfully of character types and plot points that I had seen many, many times before — and far better done — in previous Woody Allen films.  Chris Wilton was played by the young, hot Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but he talked like a familiar Woody Allen character and had all the familiar characteristics — including reading habits (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) — of a familiar Woody Allen character.

Now, of course, there are aspects of Jasmine that also make her seem like a familiar Woody Allen character.  We have certainly seen arrogant, wealthy white women in his movies before.  And Blue Jasmine’s focus on issues of class and wealth are also familiar Woody Allen themes.  But, despite those aspects, I was impressed by how stylistically different Blue Jasmine felt to me from other Woody Allen films.  The cadences of the dialogue felt different, the structure of the narrative felt different, the cinematography had a different look to it (at least to my eyes) and, as I have spent several paragraphs describing above, the characters felt more alive to me than any I have seen in a Woody Allen film in quite some time.

Once the familiar-looking opening credits have finished rolling (Mr. Allen has been using the same look and font for his opening credits since the beginning of his career), there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to identify Blue Jasmine as a Woody Allen film.  It reminded me far more of Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach’s indie flick from 2007 about a wreck of a woman (played by Nicole Kidman) who wreaks havoc on her family’s lives, especially that of her younger sister.

Blue Jasmine is not a fun movie.  It is painful, and at times difficult to watch.  This is not a happy movie!  The story being told is very downbeat.  But I was very pleasantly surprised by how taken I was with the story being told.  Bravo to Mr. Allen for crafting a film that feels very different from the forty-plus films in his filmography, and most of all bravo to Cate Blanchett for her fearless performance.

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