Thursday, August 8, 2013

Blanchett brilliant in 'Blue Jasmine'

First the simple good news: Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine finds the director in fine form.

Now, a work inspired by figures as disparate as Tennessee Williams and Bernie Madoff seems like an impossible, perhaps even ludicrous, concoction. But in borrowing elements from both reality and drama, Allen has given Blue Jasmine a voice all its own.

The movie also serves as a dazzling showcase for an actress who hardly needs one. Cate Blanchett is brilliant, funny and fiercely scattered as the wife of a fallen Wall Street wheeler-dealer named Hal (Alec Baldwin). Jasmine has hit bottom since her philandering husband was jailed for a massive fraud that prompted the government to seize everything the couple owned.

Mercurial, rueful and sophisticated -- at least when it comes to matters of style -- Blanchett's Jasmine draws on Blanche DuBois from Williams's famed A Streetcar Named Desire, a role she played in New York in 2009 to much acclaim.

Bereft of resources, Jasmine arrives in San Francisco to live with her sister (Sally Hawkins), a divorced woman whose former husband (Andrew Dice Clay) was one of Hal's victims. And, yes, Clay -- someone I had no desire ever to see again -- acquits himself well here. It's an interesting bit of casting.

Like Stella in Williams's play, Hawkins's Ginger is involved with a boisterous and sometimes crude mechanic (a fiery Bobby Cannavale). I'm not entirely sure Cannavale's Chili makes a great deal of sense, but the character doesn't detract, either. The same can be said for Michael Stuhlbarg who shows up as a dentist who hires Jasmine as a receptionist, and then tries to force her into a sexual relationship.

Happily, Allen hasn't attempted an updated replication of Williams's play; he uses Streetcar as a launching pad from which he can examine what happens when the nouveau riche suddenly become the nouveau poor.

Those who prefer Allen with laughs should know that he hasn't stripped the proceedings of humor, but -- at least for me -- there was considerably more pain than hilarity in Jasmine's precipitous decline.

In some ways, Blanchett is the movie. She fills Jasmine with a mixture of disdain and anxiety: This -- Allen seems to be saying -- is how we arrive at Blanche DuBois in 2013. Tossed off the Wall Street planation, Jasmine has been left for near-dead.

We see glimpses of the person Jasmine once was when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a San Francisco businessman with political ambitions. Dwight understands that Jasmine is the kind of woman he proudly can drape over his arm. She knows how to behave herself around money, an asset for any politician's spouse. And, when she's on her game, she looks great.

Of course, Dwight eventually must discover how wrong he is about Jasmine. It's a bit of a stretch to think that the wife of a notorious Wall Street criminal wouldn't instantly be recognizable to someone like Dwight, but this lapse of plausibility also proves forgivable in light of Blanchett's bravura turn.

Baldwin's Hal, whose criminality fuels the story, is seen in flashbacks that put both his arrogance and indifference to conventional morality finds on display.

In what seems a digression as much as an enrichment, Louis C.K. shows up as an alternative suitor for Ginger, someone who gives the so-called "lesser" sister a chance to attain a new, more confident sense of her self. Don't expect a happily-ever-after.

By the time, Blue Jasmine concludes, Jasmine's personality has shattered. She's left talking to herself, one of those sad, anonymous people you see wandering the streets of some cities. It's a sobering moment, and it makes you wonder: Has Jasmine been talking to herself for her entire life? Has she ever been able to step outside the kind of delusions that make her so appalling, so human and so deeply tragic?

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