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Blue Jasmine

Reviewed by Tom Steward.

Director Woody Allen
Length 98 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article A movie about mental illness based on A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Woody Allen comes with firm expectations. So it’s a great relief when you realise that Blue Jasmine plays with those expectations rather than succumbing to them.

The movie doesn’t completely transcend type. With tinny, early 20th century jazz recordings, stagey interior compositions and abruptly juxtaposed long takes, there’s nowhere else you could be but a Woody Allen movie. But what’s evident is Allen’s desire to make more of the material and re-mould it into something lying beyond the preconceptions of his knowing audiences. Characters from Tennessee Williams’ mid-century stage and screen melodrama are revived not to laboriously re-hash the story but as social types re-articulated for the morality of the contemporary world. In movies about troubled minds, it’s traditional for there to be some external manifestation of what goes on inside the protagonist’s head. Allen has done this before, notably by imitating the subjective flashbacks of his cinematic mentor Ingmar Bergman, but in Blue Jasmine he deals with how psychological turmoil looks on the surface and appears to others.

Former New York socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) goes to live with adopted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her two children in a modest San Francisco apartment following bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown after wealthy ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is prosecuted for financial crimes and commits suicide in prison. Battling alcoholism, prescription drug addiction and mental collapse, Jasmine tries to build a new career as an interior designer while being wooed by Washington diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) and employer Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), and enduring Ginger’s troubled relationship with long-term boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). The movie takes up the story from Jasmine’s arrival in San Francisco with frequent flashbacks to her life in New York, a format that reflects her state of mind as she grows increasingly unable to distinguish between past and present in her daily life.

Blue Jasmine belongs to Blanchett. Her performance glides effortlessly between melancholy and psychosis, and creates a viciously spiked satire of a society woman fallen on hard times without ever losing Jasmine’s vulnerability. The rest of the performances, as we see all too often with Allen’s increasingly vogue-based casting choices, are an uneven hodge-podge. Comedian Louis C.K. is wonderfully charming in a near pointless role as Ginger’s fling Al, and it’s a shame the movie doesn’t pursue his storyline more vigorously. There are some superb one-scene cameos, mainly from elderly actors who seem to be Allen’s entry point into his movies in his post-acting days. However, Baldwin is in corporate spokesman mode throughout, and Hawkins’ Mike Leigh-inherited mannered style of acting sits uneasily with Allen’s flat direction. The natural talents of comedian Andrew Dice Clay and character actor Michael Stuhlbarg seem inhibited by achingly stereotypical roles.

The cheap and fast production of Allen’s movies really shows through in Blue Jasmine. There’s some hopeless CGI and sound editing which makes the movie - in spite of the quality of its performances - seem inexpertly put together. It’s clear that Allen understands the geographical and social intricacies of San Francisco better than the tourist-hardware London he creates for Match Point (2005), but there’s still a sense that his actors are playing against a hazy fuzz of generic place and space, constructed without the care and attention he used to give to milieu and location in his New York-based movies. The loose ends of the screenplay, particularly those concerning the various boyfriends and suitors in the movie, work in the sense that they undermine audience expectations about how the story will turn out. But I wonder how much this is a by-product of Allen’s forgetful and incomplete writing.

Blue Jasmine defies the norms of representation within its subject matter, director’s body of work, and source material. But these achievements are tainted by the unevenness of the performances and the occasional incompetence of production, writing, and design.

This review was published on September 24, 2013.

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