The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen fans must certainly realize that there's a cycle to his work. The filmmaker cranks out a movie a year. Every few years, he delivers something genuinely great, followed by anywhere from two to five years of lesser (but sometimes still entertaining) efforts, and then another great one. As it happens, 2013 is one of those years where he gives us greatness. Blue Jasmine easily ranks among the best films of Allen's entire career.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine. She is the kind of woman Tom Wolfe called a “social x-ray” in his classic novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Jasmine lived a socialite's life with her Bernie Madoff-like husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), who spoiled her before being carted off to jail for his financial crimes. At this point, her whole world imploded. The movie shows what happens when, broke and having suffered a nervous breakdown that is clearly still in progress, she moves in with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who's trying to balance an ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), with whom she has two kids, and a new boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine begrudgingly takes a job working for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg), gets Ginger involved with another man (Louis C. K.), and eventually meets an aspiring politician (Peter Sarsgaard) who may be her ticket back into high society. The film cuts back and forth between her current predicament and flashbacks to key times in her marriage, using the contrast to illustrate the self-delusional way Jasmine allows herself to live.

At his best, Woody Allen is able to show us the inner conflict of his characters with astonishing clarity. Blue Jasmine demonstrates this skill at its most fine-tuned. Jasmine is a woman who gets ejected from a life of privilege, finds that she's ill-equipped to exist outside that world, and desperately tries to find a way back in. Allen puts her into a lot of situations that she clearly can't handle (e.g. working as a receptionist), then shows us how she attempts to get through them. This often involves swigging martinis and popping Xanax. But here's the kicker: Jasmine could cope if she chose to. The film suggests that she has mastered the gift of “looking the other way when she wants to,” as Ginger puts it. Did she know Hal was involved in shady business dealings? Did she know he was fooling around with other women? Probably yes on both counts. She simply didn't want to see those things, and so she didn't. Similarly, Jasmine doesn't want to see how to work a normal job, how to conserve money, or how to adapt to life outside high society. Her self-imposed blindness is her defense mechanism. She makes herself helpless because being the victim comes more easily than taking charge.

This character gives Cate Blanchett – already one of the most reliable actors working today – the opportunity to deliver career-best work. As a performer, Blanchett is clearly composed, confident, and capable, yet she convincingly plays this woman who is none of those things. The actress vividly creates a woman teetering on the edge; it's like watching the proverbial train wreck in slow motion, as Jasmine rambles uncontrollably, pops pills, and repeatedly works to get everyone else feeling as sorry for her as she feels for herself. This is a master class in acting. Blanchett turns in a performance that sets the new standard for actors portraying wildly dysfunctional people.

The supporting players give her a lot to bounce off. All the people Jasmine encounters act as a mirror, reflecting some negative aspect of her personality back to her. Unsurprisingly, she rejects them all. Of particular worth in singling out are Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), who embodies the “finding joy in simple things” mentality that Jasmine can't comprehend, and – surprisingly – Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's ex-husband. His character has a personal grudge against Hal and holds Jasmine partly responsible, as well. Best known as a profane comedian, Clay shows real dramatic range here, playing a wounded guy who's angry about how his life ended up. He's a revelation.

Perhaps the most daring thing about Blue Jasmine is the ending. I won't say what happens, except to note that the picture ends exactly as it should. Woody Allen has made a movie about single-mindedness, about the inability to see oneself in a new light when circumstances necessitate it. Jasmine is a tough character to like, and yet we undeniably care about her. Did she make herself this way, or did Hal change her? Does it even matter? She's lost, and her attempts to convince herself that there's no way to get found make for a deeply compelling, often darkly comic, and undeniably brilliant film.

( out of four)

Blue Jasmine is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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