September 5, 2013

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen's Best in Two Decades

Jasmine Francis lives a gorgeous perfect Park Avenue existence. Weekend retreats to the Hamptons. A handsome, millionaire husband Hal Frances, who guest lectures at their son’s Harvard business class. Diamond bracelets.

But that’s all surface. Hal is as fraudulent as Bernie Madoff and sleeps around behind her back. Jasmine appears oblivious…but is she really, or is she choosing to look the other way?

Her husband is jailed for fraud and, in a snap, it’s all gone. The properties. The diamonds. “Everything I worked for.” Though of course she never worked. She didn’t even finish college. This leaves her without any options except to move in with her grocery-bagging sister Ginger in a crammed apartment in San Francisco. She refuses to abandon her Park Avenue self-image and resolves to somehow restore its foundation, but can only acknowledge her current reality with a Xanex, vodka cocktail.

In a sense, Jasmine Frances is the anti-Leonard Zelig, Woody Allen’s fascinating social chameleon in his oft-forgotten Zelig. Zelig could and would emulate the likeness of all types –bankers or janitors, politicians or baseball players, rabbis or Nazis – to the point where he lost all personal identity. For Jasmine, maintaining personal identity comes at the cost of reality.

Her arrival in San Francisco ruins the plans of Chili, Ginger’s boyfriend, who was planning to move in. Played wonderfully by Bobby Cannavale, Chili is warm but explosive with a blue-collar grasp of human nature. He sees through Jasmine, but is big enough to keep his mouth shut.

To Jasmine, he’s an auto mechanic. To Jasmine, he’s no better than Augie, Ginger’s affable, good-natured failure of an ex-husband (never mind that Jasmine was responsible for losing all his money). To Jasmine, Ginger can do better. It seems ludicrous – Ginger’s relationship is the fullest in the film - but Allen takes no easy outs. Ginger has felt like the lesser sister her entire life. With an endorsement from someone of Jasmine’s stature, why not listen?

But then…does Jasmine have stature? Did she ever?

Jasmine’s delusion is infectious, and we as the audience aren’t immune. We laugh when Chili sets her up with one of his guido friends…but should we? Might he actually be the better catch of the two? We accept when Jasmine falls into the arms of Dwight Westlake, a handsome, wealthy politician she meets during her rebound. He’s a genuine human being, who fell on hard times, who loves Jasmine deeply - but isn’t it interesting how he drones on about the campaign trail, how he seems fixated on her elegance…

Of course, it’s far easier to sell mistruths to others than it is to delude yourself. And as the film progresses and the gap between Jasmine’s self-image and reality widens, her grip on that fa├žade tightens, and we see just what she’s willing to sacrifice to maintain that image.

This is perhaps Allen’s deepest, well-written film since Hannah and Her Sisters. The story is ingeniously told, intercutting between San Francisco and her past in New York. The transitional cues at first feel arbitrary, but grow increasingly meticulous, adding to the depths of the film’s tortured character.

Reaching such depths would be impossible without Cate Blanchett, who somehow tightropes self-denial and integrity, pain and composure, mental anguish and beauty. It’s a character that could easily alienate an audience but we're clued into Jasmine's inner torture. Blanchett will receive awards for her work and she deserves them all.

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