Riveting. Relentless. Ridiculous. Cate Blanchett seizes the screen from the first moments of Woody Allen's new movie Blue Jasmine and refuses to let go. It's her vehicle, so don't get in the way.
Instead of settling quietly within her character to probe its recesses, she blows it up, pushes hard against the seams and forces us to see every crack in the make-up and psyche. But instead of familiarity breeding contempt, we want more. When she's not on, we wonder where she is, what she's not thinking and how can she possibly further offend our sensibilities.
Blanchett's Jasmine is fleeing the burning wreckage of her failed marriage to the toxically unctuous Alec Baldwin. Baldwin's Hal gives even the over-worked stereotype of evil real estate developer a bad name. Fallen from wealth and society, Jasmine is forced to seek sanctuary, lodging in San Francisco with her working class sister, Ginger, played with sure-handed deference and wide-eyed naiveté by Sally Hawkins. Hawkins creeps up on the viewer, bit by bit seizing terrain irresistibly, until she firmly establishes herself as the flawed but decent rooting interest.
Ginger's boyfriend Bobby Cannavale, a bit heavily accented, chews scenery but ingratiates himself as a working-class hero, straightforward and loyal... a good contrast to Baldwin's wealthy facade and Blanchett's socialite pretensions. Cannavale resents Blanchett's arrival, which keeps him from moving in with her sister. But most of all he resents her arrogance and condescending attitude. Blanchett's Jasmine likes him no better than she liked her sister Ginger's ex-husband Auggie, stolidly rendered by Andrew Dice Clay, back from the dead. Ginger's working class choices Clay and Cannavale, though not probed deeply, far outshine Jasmine's husband Hal and her pursuit, the reptilian, rich diplomat Peter Sarsgaard, seeking a trophy wife for a political run.
Allen seems to have given all the principals a long leash. According to Blanchett, only she and Hawkins worked from full script. As usual Allen is less interested in ideas than in persona. Like in Midnight in Paris, where he showcases Fascist sympathizers Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein alongside anti-Fascists like Ernest Hemingway without comment, Allen succeeds more from the talent of casting and the keen interactions of his skilled eclectic actors.
The director is also immensely successful creating urban context. As he did in New York, with his best work Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters, he uses the range of San Francisco neighborhoods and sights to complement and describe his characters.
Despite the stunning backdrop and the substantial talents of the diverse cast, the movie belongs to Blanchett. The much decorated Academy Award winner has clearly turned in the best acting performance so far this year. It is difficult not to take one's eyes off her or gasp at her failure to understand or even care how her actions effect those around her. So more than just a tale of personality dysfunction, she and Woody Allen have given us a study in the failures of class pretension, values and resources. A morality tale for our times.
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