Sunday, January 26, 2014

MARVELOUS CATE -- BUT MARVEL ALSO AT WOODY IN ‘BLUE JASMINE’

By Dominique Paul Noth


Cate Blanchett as "Blue Jasmine."
No one in the acting categories can even think of approaching Cate Blanchett’s luminous manic in “Blue Jasmine,” not just the performance to beat at awards time but the performance to emulate in all times.

But that’s the easiest statement.  What will be forgotten is why. “Blue Jasmine” didn’t spring magically from her imagination or even from her immense talents, polished on the stage to be sure and now confirming her along with Meryl Streep as one of those rare chameleons of truth and technique we are blessed with.

No, the forgotten man in all this is Woody Allen.


Woody Allen directing Blanchett
 on the San Francisco streets for “Blue Jasmine.”
He has made several clinkers as well as gems among 48 movies in 49 years. At times he should have had a fairy godfather to rip the pen out of his hands, so prolific was his mania. Except the world benefited from such fidelity. He grew, thought and changed along the way while creating astounding films and memorable roles for men and, as many have noted, especially for actress after actress, the women who pray every night that someday he will call them out of the blue and offer a role.

In “Blue Jasmine” his formula is workmanlike but quicksilver with nuance, never abandoning that impulsive affection for recognizable characters, always with a great ear for the way people talk.  Now the old Woody would have fallen back on great one-liners or facile jests when in trouble, or indulge a fantasy escape into more inviting periods or cultures for his literary and artistic proclivities. No need here, since the film is deeply rooted in a modern social dilemma and contemporary observation.

It is hardly all about having a wonderful interpreter in Blanchett. No one will notice how much of her is him. Expect Woody to be barely mentioned as best director or for best film (he is notorious for avoiding personal appearance at awards). But film lovers should never overlook how dexterous, fresh yet invisible he is in mood reversals, how complex in time-shifting storytelling without ever calling attention to his directorial gifts.

He is commenting better than Obama on income equality and class anxiety and he has cast slyly around Blanchett.   (Why is Sally Hawkins not up for best supporting honors?  Would it be too much for Oscar to acknowledge that an Aussie and a Brit have nailed the dialog rhythms of American women?) 


Blanchett and Alec Baldwin in “Blue Jasmine.”
“Blue Jasmine” achieves the unlikely, seamlessly circling the comic and tragic in Jasmine’s descent toward madness. Jasmine is the ultimate in high-class wasteful, the antithesis of American productivity, the lip-service to a work ethic she has never bothered to adopt. She has fallen incuriously and as if it were owed her into shopping, world travel, cocktail parties,  Park Avenue – luxuriating in the credit card attention of a wealthy husband (the perfectly cast Alec Baldwin) who turns out to be a combination of Bernie Maddof and serial womanizer.

When the FBI and prison bring that life tumbling down, she is forced to San Francisco (first class ticket, of course)  to move in with her divorced sister (Hawkins) and two ferocious kids – the sister she scorned in her other life as a grocery clerk loser and sucker for the wrong and always vulgar man.  Ginger takes her in but can’t resist twisting the verbal knife into the once high and mighty. Their personalities are so set and the pathologies so deep that nothing rubs off either way.

Allen has taken a “Through the Looking Glass” approach to Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Jasmine as the Blanche full of her own dreams, allure and increasing loss of mental control, and sister Ginger as Stella, with her own blunt bull Stanley (in this case Chili, played relentlessly by Bobby Cannavale as a basket case of libido loose-cannon saying whatever he wishes whenever he wishes). 

But “Streetcar” is just a starting point for Allen to twist rather than echo. Normally, watching a woman mentally unravel is hardly fun and tough to make poignant.   Jasmine like Blanche could be a field day for indulgent acting. Which makes Blanchett all the more remarkable. The hooded eyes and vacant stare signal a woman falling apart, yet she pulls herself back into sophisticated mannerisms as she fights to regain status and control.

Blanchett never lets us see the actor’s brain at work or doubt the naturalness of  these mood swings. Jasmine the compulsive liar and self-deceiver remains full of touching airs. Her patrician breeding still lures the upper crust male while causing scorn in the lower berths.  Her fight for normalcy and sanity leads to an ugly groping encounter with a dentist. Her bouts of talking to herself scare strangers but mesmerize Ginger’s children in one of the most devastating babysitting scenes in film history.


Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine”
Allen twists the plot to reveal Ginger’s shallowness and Jasmine’s bitter deceptions. Coincidences catch Jasmine in a web of her own making, but her crippling weaknesses never defeat our sympathy for her plight.  That’s acting but it is also great directing.

An afterword: Allen’s presence on a movie title serves as invitation for jazz lovers to revel in his vintage scores.  In “Blue Jasmine” these Allen musical signatures are back, but as a foot-tapping counterpoint. The character herself is out of time and out of sync, caught in memories and melodies past.

Still, what an excuse to hear Louis Armstrong and King Oliver! And the late great Creole two-language blues of Lizzie Miles serving up the pointedly ironic "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."  Like the best of Allen, “Blue Jasmine” is a pleasure that just happens to be meaningful.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.


Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “12 Years a Slave.”   Check them out and add your comments.