Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: "Blue Jasmine" is One of the Most Creatively Twisted Woody Allen Film in Years

Cate Blanchett
In Annie Hall, Woody Allen famously said about people in Hollywood: "They don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows." In a sense, the director's career has almost seemed to be a huge tirade against the west coast lifestyle. His films were always famously shot in New York or later on Europe. With the announcement that his latest film Blue Jasmine would be taking place on the coast he had so long chosen to ignore, it almost seemed like a resurgence for the American filmmaker to make something equivalent to the west coast as his films like Manhattan did for the east. In a way, it does live up to Allen's vision as predicted in Annie Hall. It is by no means a flattering vision.

The story follows Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) as she comes to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). As shown in the first scene, Jasmine is definitely neurotic. Not in the kitschy, funny way most of Woody Allen's earlier work was built upon. It is more based around this tragic sense that something is deeply wrong and the only way to connect is to hear music in her head and reflect on the past. It is a strange story, especially as things get deeper and deeper. There's conflicts involving financial theft and Jasmine's insistence that Ginger has bad taste in men. 

What makes Blue Jasmine an enticing little character study is Blanchett. While the past few Allen films could be perceived as lighthearted in many ways, it seems to be vanished here. Even in a story filled with optimistic characters, it is a look at a breakdown and features the thesis: life's not fair. While there are comical moments, this doesn't feel like it should be classified as such. When Blanchett does one of several tantrums that impressively uses almost all of her body, she gives the film an edge that otherwise feels a little flat. Her performance is so charismatic that almost everyone else pales in comparison.

If the population of this universe has any downfall, it is that the San Francisco backdrop adds no personality. While it is occasionally referenced, it doesn't feel like Allen has a strong reason for making the city into a character as he has always done. In fact, there is a point in the story where the architecture is referenced as being European. In a way, this almost feels like a greater insult to the story, as it feels like he only shot there because of this concept. Even the music does little to accentuate anything significant about the location.

Of the supporting characters, there are a few standouts. Hawkins is fantastically loopy and probably the most intentionally funny character in the film. Andrew Dice Clay has a small, more dramatic role that also shines and is beneficial when it comes to some key reveals later in the story. However, nobody competes with Blanchett for overall quality like Bobby Cannavale as Ginger's boyfriend Chili. His evolution through their relationship is one of the fascinating subtexts of the story that reflects a performer deserving of breaking out. He is so charismatic that in one scene that forces him to be over-the-top, he manages to amp up the drama and make everything almost too menacing. He may be one of the best male characters to not fit the Woody Allen archetype to come out of his cinema in the past decade.

Of course, there's a tip to the reason the film is successful. Allen's script is more slight than it has been in awhile. While it is established as this typical journey of being down on your luck, it quickly evolves to be an entire crazy journey. In earlier years, it would have been more light and played for laughs. However here, it works almost as a character study mixed with a mystery. He reveals things at prominent points and does it so effectively that even if it isn't his most entertaining story in years, it is probably one of his strongest. This isn't full of laughs or witty lines, but it does have probably some of the best twists seen in a film so far this year.

Blue Jasmine is a solid film with great performances out of Blanchett and Cannavale. While it does little to make me love his take on San Francisco, it does give me hope that in the future, he will be back around. Hopefully for a less cynical story and one that romanticizes the west coast as equally as he does everywhere else. It may not be my favorite of his films and it may have a slow time getting started, but it still manages to overcome its problems and delivers one of the most interesting films of the year.

Left to right: Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale
It seems obvious to say, but if this film walks away with at least one nomination, please let it be Cate Blanchett for Best Actress. Even if it is only August, she has set the par pretty high for competitors. As seen in this film, she is unafraid to dive into the deep end of emotions, at times looking horrid. She practically shakes with all of her might and demands screen time. Even if you walk away disliking the film, it is hard not to admire Blanchett's performance, which may have a sympathetic leg with the mental issues card, but the performance itself is beyond majestic. At very least, it is one of the first truly memorable performances of the year. It also helps because she already won for Best Supporting Actress in The Aviator. This gives her a slight bit of credibility as she competes in the lead category.

As far as the supporting cast goes, I will admit that my dreams of Andrew Dice Clay being the unexpected Best Supporting Actor selection is not likely. He is pretty good and I do want to see him tackle roles like this in the future. However, as I stated in the review portion, let us get a campaign going to get Bobby Cannavale into the Best Supporting Actor race. The fact that I didn't know who he was and ended up being impressed is the highest compliment I can give him. He may play one of the goofier characters, but he does it in a redeeming way that is a great parallel to Blanchett's performance, which I guarantee will steal most of the thunder. No matter what, Allen has created a beautifully complex person unlike most of his recent characters, and it is brought to life in a way that compliments the story effectively. I would be crushed if these two never teamed up again.

Is the film capable of a Best Picture nomination? It is debatable for sure. It felt like it was a dry spell between May and July of just lackluster nonsense. For this one to come across with such high esteem is important. However, I feel like the performances is what makes this film worth checking out. The story may be good, but it feels like it is a little dark and may suffer from the Vicky Christina Barcelona equivalence where it only gets noticed for its performers It will get some nominations, but I don't feel that Best Picture is necessarily one of them. However, anything can happen because Woody Allen is known to pop up in the category from time to time, and with Midnight in Paris being in the category only two years ago, maybe the acclaim is still high enough to earn that spot. 

The other definitive nomination is one that almost every Allen film to grace the Oscars gets: Best Original Screenplay. He won for Midnight in Paris, and with this being a more fleshed out and realized story, there is little doubt that it will be excluded from the race. With critical acclaim really high, few films have garnered this level of response, save for maybe Fruitvale Station. Either way, it is one of Allen's better films, and that is reason enough to celebrate. However, if this film doesn't get some acting nominations, we are looking at a great rest of 2013.

Is Blue Jasmine capable of a Best Picture nomination? Can we get Bobby Cannavale into the race? How much of a lock is Cate Blanchett at this point?

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