"Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown... There's only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming."
Woody Allen is a true anomaly. Since his debut as a director with 1966's What's Up Tiger Lily, he has put out a film a year, every year except for six. His run from 1971's Bananas to his first Oscars for writing and directing Annie Hall is unimpeachably great, arguably one of the best runs a filmmaker has ever gone on. His work since has been much more spotty, with some ups (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway) and lots of downs.
His persistence, however, makes the lesser films all the more forgettable because the promise of a great film is always right around the corner. It's only been two years since Midnight in Paris netted him the most acclaim for any of his films in over a decade, so could his latest film, Blue Jasmine, actually be another great film? Are we in the midst of another Woody Allen renaissance? Read on to find out...
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a woman who's life has just come unglued. We're told through flashbacks that her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had been arrested for all manner of shady business practices, which he and Jasmine had reaped the benefits of for years through an extravagant lifestyle. Destitute and on her own, Jasmine is forced to move to San Francisco and live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), even though their relationship is tenuous at best; A few years back Jasmine convinced Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest all of their money in a real estate scheme that Hal had cooked up which resulted in them losing everything.
Now Jasmine has inserted herself back in Ginger's life, and is ridiculously judgmental of every aspect of her life, particularly her new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine has plans to move on with her life and takes a job working as a dental receptionist and also takes night classes to learn more about computers in hopes of getting an interior design degree. However, a chance meeting with a rich and charming stranger named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jasmine a glimpse of regaining her old lifestyle, and her old habits begin to emerge once more.
The most interesting thing about Blue Jasmine is that it seems like a return to Allen's days writing female-centric serio-comedies, best illustrated by the 13 films he made with former lover Mia Farrow. The film felt very reminiscent of September or Alice, especially since there was no Allen surrogate character in the film (the closest we get is Michael Stuhlbarg as the lecherous dentist Jasmine goes to work for). The film also recalls earlier works like Stardust Memories, in that it's constantly moving in and out of flashback, similar to the way Jasmine's fragile mind is currently working.
It's hard to call this a true "change of scenery" film for Allen, since all of the flashbacks take place in New York City, so it's not the kind of revitalizing take on a new city that Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona were. It does feel like a kindred spirit to those films, however, in the fact that with the exception of a handful of supporting characters (namely Cannavale, Stuhlbarg, Max Casella & Louis CK) this didn't feel like a Woody Allen film. It was expansive and had a lot of shots along the Bay in Northern California that made it feel much more open and expressive than a lot of his work (not totally surprising since this film reunited him with Vicky Christina cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe).
I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this was written by him during that Mia Farrow period and then repurposed for 2013 (a tactic he's used before with 2009's Whatever Works). The biggest issue I had with the film, by far, was that none of the characters were really worth caring about. Some of the periphery characters were nice people, but for the most part, everyone was just selfish and uncaring, and even their moments when they showed a side of themselves that was more than that were too few and far between to make them wholly redeemable. I'm not saying that everyone's got to be nice, it just makes it a long trek to the end of the film when you're in the company of such repulsive people.
The best thing about the film, by far, is its cast. Blanchett is transcendentally good, and will most assuredly get major awards recognition for her performance. She plays a wholly repugnant woman that you somehow still root for, which is truly disorienting. Her performance is measured when it needs to be and brash when the script calls for it, and its some of the best work of her career. The other revelatory surprise here is Andrew Dice Clay. He appropriately plays on your expectations of what he's going to do as an actor, and delights in subverting them. He plays one of the only truly decent people in the whole film, and seems to be right at home in this world and character, and it was really great to see him having fun on screen.
The rest of the supporting cast was good as well. Hawkins, Cannavale, Stuhlbarg, and Baldwin all turn in solid performances, and people like Casella, Sarsgaard & Louis CK do the most they can with such small parts. As I mentioned earlier, the cinematography was top notch and his soundtrack selections, particularly Lizzie Miles' cover of Eddie Green's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
Blue Jasmine was not the rollicking good time I wanted it to be, and that probably hampered my enjoyment of the film. In retrospect, it is a very good film with some great performances and gorgeous cinematography, but it's not the kind of film that will achieve universal acclaim in the way Midnight in Paris did. The unlikeable characters, particularly the protagonist, will be too much for some people to look past, and that's a shame because there is some truly great stuff happening here on screen.
While this is not the kind of film Woody Allen normally makes, it's definitely right in line with a lot of his work from the 80s and early 90s, which is likely to be a major turn-off for some people. While I'm not the biggest fan of that period in his career, I think this is above average work from Allen, and it certainly has me looking forward to his next film, which will likely be out in about a year.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]