Friday, January 3, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013: #2


People tend to divide Woody Allen's oeuvre into comedies and dramas (and vastly to prefer the comedies). Truth is, most of his greatest films include elements of both. So it is with "Blue Jasmine," which provides copious quantities of huge laughs while offering a breathtakingly credible portrait of a woman on the verge.

The laughs begin in the very first scene, of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) talking the ear off her first-class seatmate. The older woman's husband collects her at the baggage claim and asks, "Who was that?" "I don't know," she says. "She was talking to herself and I made the mistake of saying, 'What?'" Thus does Allen introduce us to Jasmine, a Ruth Madoff figure who, as the film opens, has seen the government confiscate virtually every possession she and her financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) owned. 

Through extensive flashbacks, we get a sense of Jasmine's former life beyond its luxe trappings. She had been a year away from her college degree before she married, was certain of Hal's fidelity even as he philandered his way up and down Park Avenue, expressed curiosity about the ethical and legal concerns of Hal's advisers but dropped the subject when he shushed her.

As she arrives at the modest San Francisco apartment of her supermarket cashier sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine has little left but addictions to Xanax and Stoli martinis with lemon twists. Ginger is surprised, then, to see her towing Louis Vuitton suitcases. Jasmine: "Stop asking me how I bought a first-class ticket - I just DID!" Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had invested their nest egg ($200,000 in lottery winnings) with Hal, and wondered as his empire unraveled how much Jasmine had known of his fraud. (When Ginger and Augie visit New York, Hal and Jasmine show them their penthouse and shunt them off to the Marriott. Jasmine reclines in her bubble bath, exhausted: "I'm definitely taking tomorrow OFF!")

Still, the sweet and forgiving Ginger takes Jasmine in and gives her a place from which to rebuild. Not a quiet place, mind you - Jasmine's always coming out of her room to pour more Stoli and implore Ginger's kids and her new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) to stop making such a racket. Almost everything anyone says or does makes her reach for her pills. How she'll ever make a new life she doesn't know; getting her interior decorator's certificate seems as far away as the anthropology major she left behind: "First I have to take a class to learn how to use the computer, and then I have to take the design class online." Blanchett has a way of making this course of study sound as daunting as a doctorate in applied physics.

Jasmine has lost her identity not once but several times. Now, she's just lost, apt at any moment to disappear into a memory, talk to herself (her prattle a collection of snippets from old party tapes), or stare off into space. Out of necessity, she takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist's office, and can barely restrain herself as patients check their phones while scheduling and re-scheduling appointments: "Decide on a date and time and then come talk to me." The dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) develops an attraction to Jasmine, and begins to tell her of his feelings. She stops him short: "I'm sorry, do you have the time?" It's a serious question.

Jasmine French is the sort of showpiece role for which a great actress waits her entire career, usually in vain. At each rung on her descent into madness, she finds something to fill the moment rather than allow herself to contemplate the horror of her life. When a member of the diplomatic corps (Peter Sarsgaard) meets Jasmine at a party and falls for her, she sees her one last chance - at wealth, at a future, perhaps at sanity - and throws everything she has into the effort. If anyone besides Blanchett wins the Best Actress Oscar, the Academy should promptly disband. Hawkins also turns in the best work of her career, finding Ginger's emotional resourcefulness and appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.

"Blue Jasmine" is another masterwork by the movies' best writer for women (still), brought to searing life by Cate Blanchett in the performance of a lifetime.

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