By Simon Miraudo
September 13, 2013
What a relief it must be for an actor to realise they’re in one of Woody Allen‘s good movies; a biennial event! Allen is still a prolific talent in his 70s, churning out a new film each year, and it would be unwise for any performer to turn down an opportunity to work with one of the great living masters. Still, there’s really no telling if you’ll wind up in a Midnight in Paris or a To Rome With Love. Even with his questionable hit rate, however, he continues to occasionally drop idiosyncratic delights that dare challenge his all-time greats for our ‘favourite’ status, and few late-period directors can boast the same. His latest, the darkly comic class nightmare Blue Jasmine, is one of the good ones. The very good ones.
A Streetcar Named Desire given a 21st century make-over, and cast in the shadow of the global financial crisis, Blue Jasmine stars Cate Blanchett in the title role: the red wine and Xanax-swilling ex-wife of millionaire swindler and eventual convict Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin). Fleeing New York out of shame, she moves to San Francisco and in with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins); a real Stella who has merely moved from one Stanley – Andrew Dice Clay‘s brutish Augie – to another – Bobby Cannavale‘s coiffed Chili. When we meet the newly-broke Jasmine, she’s already muttering to herself, having suffered a nervous breakdown of seismic proportions. It’s all downhill from there. She struggles to forge a path onwards, working part-time at a dentist’s office (her employer played by a handsy Michael Stuhlbarg) while taking a computer course so that she might be able to one day study interior decorating. Her circuitous efforts are valiant, but she’s merely re-arranging the deck chairs on her swiftly sinking psyche. Christopher Lennertz’s discordant jazz score soundtracks her mad descent. All the while, the true extent of her involvement in Hal’s crimes are slowly revealed.
Though Allen’s comedy has never been described as ‘chipper,’ Blue Jasmine feels devilishly bleak even by his standards. He’s waded into more dramatic waters in the past, yet this is still ostensibly a comedy, and perhaps the most torturous towards a protagonist of his in some time. Blanchett is, obviously, up to the task, armed as her Jasmine is with plenty of stinging barbs for her poor sis (as well as the parade of schlubs she entertains, including, briefly, Louis C.K.). Sought not for her naturalism but rather her theatricality, Blanchett physically transforms herself, often within the same shot. During one pained monologue, in an unbroken take where the lighting never changes, Blanchett begins absolutely radiant, and ends with a glower that seemingly adds decades to her age. She is indeed acting for those in the cheap seats, but it befits the flick around her. It’s just one of many long takes utilised by Allen to stress the stage inspirations of this retooled Streetcar. That Blanchett actually played Blanche DuBois on the stage in 2009 is surely no coincidence.
There are certain things you can bank on in a Woody Allen feature: the alphabetical listing of the actors – not to mention the font – in the credits, that nebbish, neurotic sense of humour, the pervasive existential despair. Why then do only some of his pictures work? It’s heartening to know that this great modern artist has no true formula for success, and at age 77 he continues to experiment with his method to find the perfect composition, alternately turning up and down those comic and dramatic knobs just to see what happens. Blue Jasmine, his 45th piece as a writer and director, is far from the same old song, even if some of the elements feel familiar. A biting, anxiety-inspiring, sometimes-suffocating pressure cooker of a comedy, anchored by an off-kilter Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine is a Woody Allen recipe we’ve not tasted before. It’s delicious.
Blue Jasmine is now showing in cinemas.