Sunday, December 29, 2013

REVIEW: Blue Jasmine’ explores director’s dramatic side

When thinking of Woody Allen, what comes to mind is a combination of subtle and slapstick humor revolving around an eccentric lead character (played by Allen himself). For good measure, the eccentric character usually has social and/or sexual hang-ups.

“Blue Jasmine” is not that kind of Woody Allen movie.

First of all, Allen makes no appearance, as his role is limited to writer and director. Moreover, “Blue Jasmine” is a somber movie and hardly good for laughs.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a once wealthy woman whose material world falls apart when her husband’s investment enterprises are revealed to be fraudulent. In desperation, Jasmine moves across the country (from New York to San Francisco) to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

The arrangement is a sort of dark version of “The Odd Couple.” Ginger, a single mother of two boys, is used to hardship. But struggle is something new to Jasmine and she finds it humiliating to be poor and looking for menial work.

Not that Jasmine has accepted the reality of being poor. Along with retaining her spending habits (much to Ginger’s chagrin), Jasmine also has retained a sense of snobbery. She looks down on Ginger’s working-class boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). And it is a cruel irony that Jasmine (whose own husband was unfaithful to her and went to prison for bilking people out of their savings) feels herself in a position to judge Ginger’s taste in men.

But Jasmine’s unrealistic disposition also is due to acute mental illness. We learn that prior to moving in with Ginger, she had been roaming the streets in New York talking to herself, resulting in involuntary hospitalization. And she continues to exhibit the symptoms of mental illness, as she reverts to spells of incoherence and talking to herself.

Yet Jasmine’s mental illness is just as acute when she is conscious. She is a pathological liar and she tells a new boyfriend that she is an interior designer (a profession to which she aspires). She makes no mention to her boyfriend of her past or present circumstances. All of this is exposed when the couple is confronted by Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).

The movie reverts to Jasmine’s life in New York with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). Hal is a very indulgent husband, albeit unfaithful. Things come to a head when he informs Jasmine that he is leaving her for an au pair who is still in her teens.

Jasmine seems hysterical over Hal leaving her, but she has enough of her faculties that she is able to contact the FBI about Hal’s fraudulent schemes. Of course, the implication here is that she knew all along about his shady deals, including when Hal bilked Ginger and her ex-husband out of their savings.

The film ends with Jasmine plunging into her pretend world, as she tells Ginger she is getting married (to the boyfriend who has dumped her). It is a tragic and uncertain ending with Jasmine left talking to herself on a street bench. We can only speculate on her fate.

Allen is a genius film writer and director. And though “Blue Jasmine” is no masterpiece, Allen proves in this movie that his skills are by no means limited to comedy. Still, he is at his best with his esoteric comedies and one cannot help wondering if he does occasional drama just to prove he can.

Blanchett is a cinch for an Oscar nomination and Allen is also very much in the running for a nomination (for both directing and the screenplay). Too bad he doesn’t attend the Academy Award ceremonies. If he wins the Oscar for either best director or best screen play, it will be interesting to see who accepts the award on his behalf.

This review was written by John O'Neill for Digital First Media, reprinted with permission. 

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