Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013) – Review

Review: Blue Jasmine is in moments very funny, in moments melancholic, but ultimately it is a character drama that presents characters that seem to not be able to get out of their own way, constantly engaging in self-destructive behavior. The film is about Jasmine, a woman who was swept off her feet by Hal a very successful and wealthy businessman. Hal treated her like a queen, showering her in presents and luxury, and in turn Jasmine became accustom to the life. However, Hal turned out to be a fraud, stealing money from his clients to support his extravagant lifestyle, only to commit suicide in prison when caught leaving Jasmine alone and broke. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Jasmine sets out for San Francisco to stay with her somewhat downtrodden and estranged sister Ginger in the hopes of putting her life back together.

Writer-director Woody Allen has seemingly done it all with character-based comedies and dramas, often blending the two. With Blue Jasmine, he has made a film that while funny is very much a drama, almost to the extent of being a tragedy. All his characters are unlikable and none of them learn anything or grow over the course of the film. Instead, Allen is interested in presenting a character study to the audience of a woman so haunted by the ghosts of her past that she becomes a bit insane.

Allen tells the story a bit like a murder mystery intercutting the present with flashbacks that further develop the characters and relationships in the present while revealing more and more information in regards to what really happen to get to the point where the film begins (often contrary to what the narrative initially leads the audience to believe). It is a very effective narrative structure as it pulls the audience in, giving them a sense of being a detective of sorts, slowly revealing clues and facts – especially as the characters themselves are not particularly likable or relatable (at least not in the way the audience would like to admit).

Allen does a fantastic job with the characters, however, despite none of them being likable. He constantly reverses roles and expectations on character archetypes that are well established. This allows the film feel fresh. Jasmine, for example, is in some moments a complete mess – an alcoholic that looks very worn and weary who is on the verge of a complete mental break. Yet, in her element, she soars as an elegant woman of taste and class. It is this juxtaposition that also creates the film’s best comedic and most tragic moments.

While Jasmine thinks highly of herself and will not settle, seemingly willing herself back into her old life by sheer force, her sister Ginger has done nothing but settle in her life. She is almost void of self-confidence. Even though Jasmine is jaded and lives to some extent in a different world, being in Ginger’s life might actually be good for Ginger, to push her in the right direction, while Ginger’s ability to role with life’s punches and keep moving forward might rub off on Jasmine. They just might be good for each other. But again, Allen spends the whole film building up expectations only to undermine them once the audience thinks they know where the story is going.

And to some extent this is also the flaw of the film, in addition to being one of its greatest attributes. Yes, it is a refreshingly different drama with characters that actually resemble real people experiencing life, and thus it should be very relatable. But, the audience does not like any of the these people, and just when they begin rooting for Jasmine and Ginger to succeed in their endeavors of love (as the film maybe turns into a romantic comedy), Allen pulls the rug from under everyone’s feet – the characters and the audience – and everything falls apart. Thus, the film leaves the audience feeling a bit disheartened. The film is presented very much as a comedy and plays like one for most of the film, but the third act leaves everything in shambles. Basically, the tone feels like an escapist romantic comedy only to come crashing back to Earth as the catastrophe of real life loss and pain seizes the film. But to be fair to Allen, he constantly hints that this is no fairytale and that eventually everything will fall apart, but the audience is nonetheless caught off guard by the severity by which everything come down and the abrupt ending seemingly lacking in narrative closure – there is no sense that things will be alright in the end for Jasmine.

Blue Jasmine is entertaining overall because of Allen’s strong writing, the wonderful performances throughout (and especially from the lead), and the innovative narrative structure (applying what seems like a detective mystery structure to drama that mostly feels like a comedy). Yet, it leaves the viewer feeling deflated in the end due to it destroying everything it seemed to be building towards.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Woody Allen continues to churn out films at a pace of one a year – some slight missteps (like last year’s To Rome with Love, which taken as a satirical work is actually quite funny), while others are triumphs (like Midnight in Paris). What does not change is Allen’s great dialog, interesting and neurotic characters, and flare for comedy and drama. I look forward to next year’s Allen film, knowing at worst it will be forgettable but entertaining in the moment and at best another work of brilliance.

Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography is fairly basic. The lighting is good, but Allen does not go for much in a visual sense, instead allowing the performances take center stage. Santo Loquasto’s production design is good as well. The difference between the style of Jasmine’s former homes and Ginger’s apartment is striking, and visually permits the audience to feel some sympathy for Jasmine (despite her gaudy snobbishness).

The cast is very good, as Allen works with a new company of actors (many of which are unexpected). Peter Sarsgaard (smarmy) and Louis C.K. (awkward nice guy) both play characters they are typically known for in small supporting roles, only for Allen to twist the audience expectations, while Michael Stuhlbarg is goofy as a dorky, yet rapey dentist. Bobby Cannavale is good as a native of the Garden State displaced in San Francisco and Andrew Dice Clay perfectly plays a down on his luck working class shlub. Alec Baldwin shows up, as well, to do a variation on his Jack Donaghy character, which is always fun. Sally Hawkins is great as Ginger, the sister who has no sense of self-worth and yet is probably the stronger of the two. And, Cate Blanchett is excellent as Jasmine. In one moment she is magnetic, completely commanding the screen beaming with elegance, and in the next she is a complete wreck, a totally different person yet just as fascinating. It is masterful performance.

Summary & score: Blue Jasmine sees Woody Allen at his best when it comes to creating compelling and complex characters who are not quite likable, but tonally the film might be a bit too erratic – the fantasies of romantic comedy crushed by the bitter realities of life. 7/10

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