Sunday, August 25, 2013

Blue Moon Pie

Tonight's film: Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine.

I think I'm as attuned as the next person to the idea of subtle variations on a theme. Certainly with music--I have a zillion complete collections of Bach's organ music, and there's no limit to the recordings of Duruflé or César Franck that I'm willing to pony up for, never mind that I know the repertoire inside and out. But the tiny details of interpretation, the little variances from instrument to instrument and acoustic tidbits from room to room; these are the things a music collector digs into. Or with literature: do I really need to read another cat-and-mouse criminal fiction story? Apparently yes. But within a given genre, sometimes even a very specific genre, the tiniest details contain a whole universe. Any collector of things knows this.

So I don't know why I should expect it to be different with movies. Woody Allen, with a few exceptions, seems to have been making the same movie for decades now. Or, more accurately, he's been writing variations on the same central theme. Or maybe, like Monet and his haystacks, Allen is trying with subtle variations to achieve a singularly perfect thing by using a very limited palette.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine (a.k.a. Jeanette) Francis, a divorced / widowed woman who comes to San Francisco to live with her sister after the implosion of her jet-setting New York life. Jasmine has lived a billionaire's existence with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Bernie Madoff-style financier whose schemes finally catch up with him. Hal winds up in jail where, we are told, he hangs himself, leaving Jasmine with a few gaudy material possessions which she is forced to hock to pay her legal debts. Broken and broke, swilling vodka and popping pills, she shows up on the doorstep of her grocery-store-cashier sister (Sally Hawkins) looking for a place to crash while she tries to find a way to make the world slow down so she can get back on.

The arc of this story line isn't especially Allen-esque, but how the story is told makes it Another Variation on a Theme of Woody Allen. About half the movie involves people very carefully talking on top of each other, and the other half has Jasmine herself artfully stammering her way through her lines.

But instead of the usual funny-guy stammering, Jasmine is, well, not well. For a guy known for being funny--subtle chuckle to riotous belly laugh, you wait for the zingers in a Woody Allen film--this one is much more shades of sad and disturbing. There's not much funny in Jasmine's plight, and her clueless snobbery playing against the braying coarseness of her sister Ginger and her crowd is only good for a chuckle or two before we begin to feel mostly pity. For Jasmine. Her inability to learn anything from her past experience is heartbreaking to watch.

Maybe that's an unexpected twist: it's a film that, while not canonizing anyone, rather celebrates the honesty and decency of the regular working stiff--in the persons of Ginger and her ex-husband (played very effectively by Andrew Dice Clay) and her latest boyfriend (a lovely turn by Bobby Cannavale). These salt-of-the-earth types are held up against the almost monstrously materialistic Jasmine and her sleazy crook of a husband. From a filmmaker whom troglodytes might hold up as a perfect example of the effete intellectual, this perhaps plays to an unexpected side of the fairway.

But in the end I think Jasmine's issues are considerably more serious than just being a vain, shallow person. She pretty clearly--overtly, even--is suffering from mental illness, and the more we grasp this the more uncomfortable the story becomes. Or the more uncomfortable it becomes to laugh at anything you see in this setting. I find myself chewing on whether Allen's effort here is really a worthy take on such a potentially heavy topic. And in any case the director doesn't seem to know how to find his way back out of the thicket once he's worked his way in. The story begins at a logical enough point, but the ending seems quite arbitrary and unsatisfying to me. I always think of the howls of protest from my wife and her parents at the end of Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, where there is no resolution, no reckoning, no ending; the film stops at a break in the action. But even in that film we at least felt on solid, if unsavory, ground; we have watched Ripley arrive at full-fledged psychopathy. But in Blue Jasmine we end in exactly the same place we started, much more aware of the facts than we were but no wiser for this--indeed, we're actually deeper in the woods than when we started. And there is essentially no resolution to any of the situations we spent the last two hours living through.

So: well-crafted, beautifully-cast and -acted, engagingly-written; but ambivalent and irresolute.

Grade: B-

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