September 12, 2013

Do you like this?

Audiences like to see a villain fall as much as they like to see an underdog win the day. We look for balance in the world, and when a bad person is taken down or a good person is lifted up, the world feels fair, if only for a few moments. These are the type of stories that wrap up easily, with winners and losers clearly defined, giving us hope that our own stories will have a similar resolution. 

We are the protagonists of our own lives, suffering our own slings and arrows, celebrating successes and happiness, all played out dramatically through the lens of our experiences. It’s easy to forget that our tormenters, the devils that beguile us throughout our lives, are the stars of their own internal passion plays. No one casts themselves as evil—all destructive actions can be justified internally. When a villain falls, when their punishment finally catches up with them, most stories end. “Blue Jasmine” shows the aftermath of the karmic collapse.

Played expertly by Cate Blanchett, Jasmine is a modern Blanche DuBois, a carefully crafted façade of elegance and poise hiding a deeply troubled alcoholic seeking the only redemption she knows. Many reviews of the film have pointed out similarities between “Blue Jasmine” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” updated here by Woody Allen, the only director in recent memory that has been credited with having  “periods,” like Van Gogh or Monet. 

This film is certainly more cynical than past Allen films. The jokes are fewer and farther between, mixed with a poignant bitterness about the world. Perhaps this film is Allen’s commentary on the financial woes of the past few years, an apology for unchecked opulence at the expense of those less fortunate. Perhaps Allen is trying to paint the wealthy as more human, rather than the detached, idle demigods that occupy Park Avenue penthouses. If this was his intention, he succeeds in spades. Jasmine has been the stereotypical trophy wife, whose work included organizing benefits and decorating massive houses with expensive things. But after the fall, she works in a dentist’s office and studies computers so that she can take online classes, desperate to make something of herself at an age when most opportunities have vanished. Yes, she complains about the banality of the work—but she does it nonetheless. She is a hard worker despite never before holding a job, despite her ever-deteriorating mental state. That she is the architect of her own misfortune only serves to enhance how the audience identifies with her.

Jasmine’s self-destruction is paired with the relationship woes of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Where Jasmine is a picture of aristocracy, Ginger is decidedly working class. She is drawn to blue-collar men, who are emotional and violent, but seem to have a keener understanding of who they are as people. And yet, neither sister makes good decisions regarding their personal lives. They trust too much in a man’s ability to take care of them. They are opposite sides of the same coin. Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) appears to be the moral compass of the film, the man that speaks the truth and calls the world as it is: filled with uncaring, ungrateful people who take advantage of those who should know better. He learned his lesson from Jasmine and teaches her one of his own.  

Cate Blanchett will likely receive an Academy Award nomination for her performance. She embodies the character of Jasmine with an honest humanity, when caricature would have been easier. The idle rich are easy to discount on an emotional level, but Blanchett makes us care for someone that could easily be a monster from another perspective. Sally Hawkins does a fine job at balancing Blanchett’s careful diction and prim grace with an ordinary and simple portrayal.  Both she and Andrew Dice Clay serve as stand-ins for Main Street America, adding a sense of realism that contrasts with the extravagance of the elites in the financial sector.

Where Allen succeeds with the film is in telling a morality tale without preaching at the audience. “Blue Jasmine” really is a character study, rather than a criticism. Allen wants to encourage equality by diminishing the “otherness” that exists between classes. At their core, people are the same everywhere, regardless of income. Who better than Woody Allen to show the neurosis that exists when all pretense is stripped away?


September 12, 2013

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