Aug 152013
 

Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 15, 2013

In “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s latest movie, Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine French, a down-on-her-luck New Yorker forced to move in with her sister in San Francisco’s low-rent Mission District apartment after her wealthy husband, played by Alec Baldwin, leaves her high and dry.

This is the 43rd movie Mr. Allen has written and directed (more if you count shorts and TV programs) in 47 years – a prodigious output, though a mixed bag in terms of quality. Among them are many goofy comedies, a few classics, and, more recently, a slew of humdrum mediocrities.

“Blue Jasmine” is something else: a halfway-interesting movie about a woman’s descent into madness. It is, however, marred by a curious hybrid feel that is half comedy and half tragedy, and stumbles along in bursts of stagey melodrama interrupted by humorless one-liners. It was inspired in part by Tennessee Williams’ classic play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but the comparison does neither Mr. Allen nor the film any credit.

Part of the problem is in the writing, which provides us with characters who say and do outrageously inappropriate things. The women are victims; the men are lying, thieving, cheating, misbehaving, conniving louts. It’s all said so much better on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the classic blues song heard during several key scenes:

“My happiness is less today

My heart is broke, that’s why I say.

Lord, a good man is hard to find

You always get another kind.”

Another problem is in the casting. The usually wonderful British actress Sally Hawkins (spectacular in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky”) is mousy and mostly clueless as Jasmine’s sister, Ginger. Bobby Cannavale comes off loud and obnoxious as her working class boyfriend. Louis C.K. as Ginger’s paramour and Andrew Dice Clay as her former husband fare a little better, and Peter Sarsgaard as Jasmine’s short-lived beau maintains an even keel, which seems almost out of place in this film. Mostly they display a single dimension of behavior and stick to it like a phonograph needle stuck in a recording.

Mr. Allen’s penchant for piling on celebrity actors for secondary roles does not serve him well. It is hard to disentangle Andrew Dice Clay’s character from his controversial past. It might have been better to cast character actors unknown to the audience, who could have brought more originality and credibility to their parts.

Thankfully, Ms. Blanchett’s performance rises above the stew. Watching her parse the character of Jasmine is to see a triumph of good acting over mediocre writing and direction. Her character’s actions – by turns naïve, deceitful, desperate and delusional, whipsawed between comedy and pathos – don’t add up to someone we quite understand. And yet we care for her, in a performance that is already being hailed as a sure-thing Academy Award nomination. Ms. Blanchett’s Jasmine stands out mostly, however, in comparison to the paucity of other convincing story lines and characters within the movie.

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