Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blue Jasmine

"Blue Jasmine" is, frankly, not my kind of movie.  I might hold a measured contempt for mindless action nonsense like "Riddick", but fortunately or unfortunately, those are exactly the kind of movies my brain is wired for.  Even the more terse and serious, extremely well-crafted films, like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" are still essentially escapist fantasies featuring incredible people living exciting adventures.  So when "Blue Jasmine" is a low-key movie about relationships, class differences, and emotional instability upon reaching middle age after the collapse of your entire support structure and world view, I'm left basically unable to exactly process what it was that I've seen.  It reminds me of the kind of novels that fill literature course curriculum or the New York Times Book Reviews.  Real weighty personal tragedies that are discussed over the clink of cocktails at extremely trendy parties that I will never be invited to because my idea of great literature is George R. R. Martin.

I suppose I'm already falling back into a familiar viewpoint of anti-snobbery, the same arguments I've made before as to why movies such as "The Tree of Life" steal souls and murder babies.  But really, "Blue Jasmine" is not really a bad movie.  Its well-acted, its well-directed, it has powerful characters full of life who move through a story along very logical steps.  And its actually rather funny, though I'm not quite sure how intentional the humor was.  I wasn't quite sure if director Woody Allen was building some kind of very dark sitcom featuring two sisters from mismatched backgrounds trying to live together in San Francisco or a dark and effecting human tragedy in a vague homage to "A Streetcar Named Desire".  Or both?  Or maybe some freakish third thing, unimaginable to me and my small Summer Blockbuster-rattled brain.

I guess the point I'm making here is with "Blue Jasmine", I'm really not sure whether I really liked it or not.  Honestly, I can look at every individual piece, and make this double for every casting choice and acting decision, and see nothing but well-made filmmaking.  But was the movie any good?  You can weigh every individual piece, but somehow the math doesn't seem to add up, there's this weird airy lacking in "Blue Jasmine", and I'm not quite sure if I can put my finger on it.

The immediate thing that everybody will come away with is that basically every performance in "Blue Jasmine" is excellent, mostly thanks to a very strong cast.  From the reliably awesome Cate Blanchett to Woody Allen's bit of stunt casting with Eighties comedian Andrew Dice Clay, this is a movie that is pulled together well by its human components.  It even has Michael Stuhlbarg, a diminutive little Jewish man who may be the best actor working today*.  The star, Blanchett, is a posh New York upper class presence that is forced to mingle with the lowest of New Jersey guido trash - all of which curiously has washed ashore in San Francisco for no reason that is ever adequately explained.  Blanchett's titular Jasmine goes through every scene either awash in vodka, or desperately trying to hold herself together against an increasingly fraying mind.  She's horrified to be trapped in a situation where she has to live in a tight apartment with her divorced lower class sister, a very insensitive and dumb boyfriend, and two fat bored-looking children.  Its all she can do to stay in reality, when increasingly she fades back into mumbling about her past and fantasizing about New York society days gone by.

Much like Blanche DuBois, Jasmine is obsessed with a musical motif connected with her late husband, this time the song, "Blue Moon".  Rather insanely, Jasmine is the only person on Earth who actually doesn't remember the lyrics to this song, but its just another significant detail of her collapsing memory and psyche.  Her fading sense of reality is actually worked in as a way of explaining flashbacks, allowing us to travel to Woody Allen's beloved New York City to see Cate Blanchett living the high life with her slimey Bernie Madoff-ish husband, played by Alec Baldwin.  (Who, by the way, squandered a considerable amount of Jasmine's sister's money, if only to increase the "Streetcar" connection.)  Yet while Jasmine is egocentric, horribly classist, and deeply deeply delusional, she never becomes unsympathetic.  You kinda root for this poor defeated woman, because there really isn't a tragic flaw here.

Then again, a huge portion of this movie isn't quite the tragedy of Jasmine, but rather a large, probably somewhat bloated cast with their own sideplots.  Jasmine's sister has no less than three suitors, and actually begins a romance in contrast to Jasmine's false attempt to pull herself back into upper class social circles.  Probably the best laughs of the movie come when Cate Blanchett is discussing 19th century furniture with a wealthy diplomat played by Peter Sarsgaard, when meanwhile her sister is having sex with Louis C.K. in the back of a car on the San Francisco waterfront.  One is planning to go to Vienna, the other is dancing to an iHome in a motel.  This was pretty great.  But where a near-rapist dentist, a runaway son, and other characters fit in, I'm not really sure.

Altogether, it kinda hurts "Blue Jasmine" because by the time Cate Blanchett is starting to think she's found her way back to her old life, you've already realized that there is no way that other shoe is going to stay afloat.  The only question is how is fate going to finally finish this woman, and how bad the fall is going to be.  And then, the pacing of the movie seems to fade away, and its all become somewhat sad and predictable.

So maybe my point is that perhaps "Silver Linings Playbook" should have ended with the stupid romantic comedy dance number.  Maybe we need that small stretch of Hollywood un-reality in order to make movies worth watching.  Because otherwise I sit through a movie and find myself calling my mom just to make sure she's doing okay.  Or could there be a middle ground between "Blue Jasmine" and "Silver Linings Playbook"?  Where emotionally hopeless characters manage to reach a positive place in their lives without it being absolute nonsense?  Maybe.  Maybe.

* 50% of the reason that "Men in Black 3" did not suck was thanks to Michael Stuhlbarg.

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