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Summer Movies 2013: Blue Jasmine

Summer Movies 2013: Blue Jasmine
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Woody Allen has always crafted rich female roles in his films. And he also chooses exceptional actresses who become synonymous with his work. Think of Diane Keaton as Annie Hall, Mia Farrow as Alice, Mariel Hemingway as Tracy in “Manhattan”. Now Cate Blanchett steps in front of his lens in “Blue Jasmine”, a desperately sad portrait of a lost soul, which also happens to be humorous and entertaining. After the disappointing “From Rome with Love”, Allen is back on form surrounding himself with a superb cast and weaving an absorbing story of one woman’s downward spiral.

Starting his tale in the familiar, wealthy homes of Manhattan and the Hamptons, Allen casts Blanchett as Jasmine, an elegant, socialite wife to Wall Street financier Hal, played dab-handedly by Alec Baldwin, who at this point in his career, can do underhanded, slick philanderer in his sleep. Jasmine would seem to have it all, even if she does have to turn a blind eye to some of her husband’s indiscretions. But a financial scandal takes away everything that Jasmine holds dear and she is left penniless and alone. She has never worked a day in her life and is remarkably ill-equipped to do anything. It’s no wonder that Jasmine is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

So Jasmine finds herself crossing the country with her Louis Vuitton luggage to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”) in San Francisco. Ginger has had a less fortunate life, with two children from an ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) and an under-achieving boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine can barely contain her disdain for Ginger’s lifestyle and Allen crosscuts between scenes in Ginger’s shabby-chic apartment and scenes in Jasmine’s former 5th Avenue luxury pad to stress Jasmine’s alienation and discomfort. Blanchett is formidable as a woman fighting to cling to her life of privilege and ease, while dealing with the mundanity of work and money. There is also much humor to be mined from the fish out of water concept as Jasmine tries half-heartedly to join the work force.

But it quickly turns out that Jasmine isn’t exactly who she makes out to be.  Her real name is Jeanette and she grew up with Ginger in a solidly middle-class home. Her regal, refined facade is just that … a facade. Like a heroine in a Jane Austin novel, Jasmine is a prisoner of her (self-defined) circumstances; she needs to find a man quickly to support her and give her life meaning.  So imagine her delight when she attracts the attention of a well-to-do diplomat played by Peter Sarsgaard. Ashamed of the scandal in her past, she claims to be a widow. The lies begin to pile up and Jasmine’s tragic flaw reveals itself.

Allen does a great job of balancing the comic elements of the script with the serious aspects of a woman trying to figure out her identity. As the story progresses, the comedy gives way to a rather startling portrait of psychosis and the ending is as bleak as I can remember seeing in a Woody Allen film. But Blanchett’s performance is so consuming and furious that one becomes lost in the character. No matter that the supporting characters tend towards the one-note, Blanchett’s knife-edge performance is a captivating one.  Audiences expecting Allen’s usual comic one-liners, or examination of big themes of God and Death and the meaning of life might be surprised. By focusing on one woman and her mental state, Allen has managed to produce something quite original. And with over forty features on his resume, that is no small accomplishment.

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