Monday, August 19, 2013

Blue Jasmine

A Streetcar Named Desire 
for the Economic Downturn

     Last year, I wondered whether Woody Allen should retire after the mediocre To Rome With Love.  I retract that assertion after seeing Blue Jasmine, his best drama (with a couple of nervous laughs) since Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  The basic set-up is an older, desperate sister forcing herself on the ambivalent hospitality of a younger, more outwardly normal sister.  Yes, it’s Streetcar and Woody himself parodied that iconic character in Sleeper (1973).  When Neil and I saw a production at Know Theatre many years ago, I said, “I hadn’t realized that Blanche was totally nuts at the beginning until this.”   

The Glamorous Life Back in New York
     Blanche DuBois has been romanticized in the academy because of her lyrical manner of speaking and elegant storytelling.  Allen smartly avoids this fallacy by cutting between Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) current hanging on in San Francisco and her glamorous past in New York City, married to a crooked mogul (Alec Baldwin).  Instead of talking
about her past, we see it and then watch in horror as she continues reliving those past scenes out loud.  It’s funny in the first sequence as she corners the airline passenger next to her and won’t let go of her until they have their baggage, but then the viewer realizes that it didn’t matter to whom she spoke because she’s too narcissistic to actually participate in a conversation.  

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine
     We didn’t get to see Blanchett in the Liv Ullmann production of Streetcar that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) last year, though a friend of ours did and she thought Blanchett was extraordinary in being so artless that you never see her acting.  That’s how she is here, never commenting on the character’s actions, as Jasmine tries to avoid a second nervous breakdown.  I’m wondering if Allen or Juliet Taylor, his casting director, saw her at BAM.  Sally Hawkins plays Ginger, her adoptive sister, who’s been burned by Jasmine before to the extent of losing her husband and nest egg.  She puts her up because she’s family and while Jasmine scrambles to find a profitable future and maybe a man, Ginger’s given up on money, but fights hardscrabble for a chance at happiness, regardless of which man may be involved.  

Blanchett, Hawkins, and Dexter
On the Set of Blue Jasmine
     Hawkins and Blanchett are a great contrast in looks and acting styles.  Blanchett is transparent, quicksilver, and able to play any character, whereas Hawkins has a compelling tension in her performing because no matter how miserable her situation in various movies (Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008, Happy Ever Afters in 2009), she always has the capacity for joy.  Both of them hide their respective accents and seem authentically American as well as adopted sisters; this is another smart move on Allen’s part because, though they don’t look similar, they display similar mannerisms, especially in the way they look at men.  

     There isn’t a false note in the cast with Peter Sarsgaard and Andrew Dice Clay as the only morally uncompromised characters and Bobby Canavale, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, and Alden Ehrenreich making each of their scenes count.  However, the two boys who play
Speaking to Her Nephews
Ginger’s sons are terrific in their reaction shots during a restaurant scene where their Aunt Jasmine has taken them for dinner and starts giving them advice.  One boy has never heard an adult speak like this before and is eating it up, while the other boy sees right through her and can’t believe a word of it.

     Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography is casually spectacular.  It is so clear and bright that it seemed like I could see beyond the backgrounds surrounding the characters.  Two cavils:  the old timey jazz standards seem a little out of place except for the song during the end credits; and, though there are Jewish characters, there are no African-American or Asian-American characters.  San Francisco and New York never looked so white.

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